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As Murray’s final feeble forehand faded into the net, our thoughts wasted little time in turning towards the events that unfolded at the season’s first major.  We review the most dazzling success stories, the most courageous overachievers, and the most tepid underachievers of the 2011 Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses with the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on January 31, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Djokovic:  Rarely forced to summon his finest tennis in the final, the third seed earned his second Slam title not only with his celebrated groundstroke offense but also with his often overlooked defense.  Frustrating the easily frustrated Scot, Djokovic not only tracked down potential point-ending shots but placed them in awkward positions that restored the rally to equilibrium.  Before the second straight anticlimactic final in Melbourne, however, the Serb had relied upon more familiar weapons and his enhanced serve to overwhelm Federer in a semifinal less competitive than the score suggested.  A round before that victory, Djokovic cruised past the ball-bruising Berdych with superior athleticism and versatility.  Gliding among his manifold talents as smoothly as a figure skater, the 2011 men’s champion stayed calmly confident throughout a fortnight that revealed his renewed self-belief.  Has he finally learned how to sharpen his focus at crucial moments?  Or was it merely the presence of Ivanovic in his box that lifted his morale?  We’ll find out on the North American hard courts that mirror his balanced style so well.  A+

Clijsters:  Whereas a Williams or an Henin can race effortlessly past their opponents, the four-time Slam champion has honed a meticulously constructed game perhaps more complete than any of her peers.   Absent from her arsenal during her first career, though, was the steely determination that defined the rivals who snatched Slam trophies while she meekly raised runner-up plates.  Still far from savage in her comeback, Clijsters nevertheless has found the mature poise to outlast adversity.  This trait emerged when she overcame unsteady sets against Cornet, Makarova, and Radwanska to comfortably ease through tiebreaks.  It emerged again when she raised her level several notches against a far more formidable Zvonareva in the semifinals.  But it emerged most strikingly when she patiently outlasted a surging Li after dropping the first set and struggling to hold serve in the second.  Gradually quelling the doubts that besieged her, this once fragile competitor navigated to a victory less gorgeous than gritty.  Halfway to a Kimpressive Slam, she might reconsider her retirement plans if these triumphs continue.   A

Li:  Shouldering the expectations of a nation with aplomb, the Chinese veteran dispatched her first five opponents with an efficiency that evoked a much more fabled champion.  When she confronted world #1 Wozniacki, Li delicately toed the line between exploiting opportunities to launch a swift strike and gradually maneuvering the Dane out of position.  After she seized the momentum late in the second set, she refused to relinquish it to an adversary renowned for her resilience.  Remarkably unflustered by the magnitude of the occasion, the Chinese star edged relentlessly towards her historic, hard-earned victory.  Li then dropped the first eight points of the final but clawed her way into the contest one penetrating groundstroke at a time.  Through the first set and a half, she comprehensively outplayed the three-time US Open champion before the nerves that she had suppressed for so long finally surfaced in a few tentative overheads and swing volleys.  Unless injury intervenes, one suspects that a second opportunity might not elude her.   A

Murray:  Nestled in a comfortable section of the draw, the two-time finalist enjoyed a relatively tranquil route through the first four rounds.  Despite a third-set lapse against Dolgopolov, Murray conquered the sort of bold shot-maker who has troubled him at previous hard-court majors.  Less convincing against Ferrer, Murray nevertheless relied upon his seamless movement and court coverage to outlast the Spaniard who lacked the ability to overpower him.  After Murray escaped an epic opening service game in the final, we expected him to draw confidence from the reprieve.  Instead, one poor game at 4-5 in the first set derailed him for good, leading to a slovenly comedy of errors in which even a bemused Djokovic participated at times.  While the first six rounds illustrated Murray’s vast reservoir of talent, the seventh round demonstrated his urgent need to dispel the negativity that continues to undermine his potential.  Flinging away an opportunity to win his first major without defeating either Federer or Nadal, he may struggle to recover from a Sunday debacle even more dismal than his defeat here last year.   A-

Wozniacki:  Unlike so many Slam-less #1s before her, the Dane marched resolutely through a moderately imposing section of the draw.  Disproving those who believed that she would wilt under the intensified scrutiny, Wozniacki secured the top ranking after Melbourne with a comeback quarterfinal victory over Schiavone.  That collision represented a triumph for her conservative, often criticized style against one of the most imaginative shot-makers in the draw, who acquitted herself impressively despite her starring role in the next entry on this list.  And one should recognize that Wozniacki came within a point of victory before Li Na snatched a finals berth away from her.  While playing percentages still has not won the Dane a major, it will propel her deep into most important draws.  But the 20-year-old may find her precocious maturity tested by the disappointment of failing to convert a match point in a Slam semifinal.  A-

Francesca Schiavone Francesca Schiavone of Italy is congratulated after the fourth round match by Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia during day seven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 23, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

4:44:  Just two majors after Isner-Mahut, Kuznetsova and Schiavone collaborated on a labyrinthine encounter that featured 50 break points, nearly 500 serves, and a third set longer than several five-set matches at this year’s Australian Open.  Vindicating the equal prize money system, this duo managed to maintain their scintillating all-court tennis as day turned to dusk while spectators  stayed transfixed by the suspense.  Buoyed by her upset over Henin a round earlier, Kuznetsova showed flashes of her Slam-winning form as she carved out six match points, only to watch the Italian methodically erase one after the next.  The Russian then resisted valiantly when Schiavone twice failed to serve out the match before rallying from a 0-30 deficit to capitalize on her third opportunity.  Unlike the Isner-Mahut exercise in futility, these long-time rivals accompanied their gaudy scoreline with engaging rallies that showcased a variety of talents.  One nearly forgot to watch the clock.  A-

Zvonareva:  Like Wozniacki, she largely vindicated her elevated stature by reaching the semifinals, although the world #2 looked less convincing than the Dane for much of the fortnight.  Extended to a third set by Bojana Jovanovski in the second round, she regrouped to ease past three consecutive Czech lefties (see below).  But then she offered little meaningful resistance to Clijsters after a horrifically shanked smash prevented her from reaching 4-4 in the first set.  A solid player with no glaring flaws, Zvonareva should continue to dominate the journeywomen of the WTA, but she seems to lack the self-belief to break through at a major.  Nevertheless, her meltdowns clearly have grown both less frequent and less extreme, suggesting that she will contend for the top non-majors.  A-/B+

Ferrer:   A point and a set away from a debut Slam final, the Spaniard profited from the injury incurred by Nadal early in the quarterfinal.  On the other hand, he demonstrated his underestimated hard-court prowess before that stage with a series of resounding victories.  Also impressive was his ability to blunt the raw power of Milos Raonic, conceding just a dozen unforced errors across four sets.  Although his tiebreaks against Murray disappointed, he challenged the Scot more vigorously than one might have expected considering the gulf between them in talent and accomplishments.  A-/B+

German women:  Reaching her first career Slam quarterfinal, Petkovic extended the momentum of her second-week appearance at last year’s US Open.  Handed a walkover by Venus, she profited from a lackadaisical performance by Sharapova but deserves credit for withstanding the Russian’s predictable eleventh-hour surge.  Armed with a similarly combative attitude and fierce groundstrokes, Julia Goerges upset top-20 resident Kanepi in the second round before collaborating with Sharapova on one of the tournament’s most scintillating exercises in unvarnished baseline might.  Will they eventually restore their country to the limelight in a sport where it once stood tall?  B+

Dolgopolov:  We found much to appreciate in his insouciant swagger and audacious ball-striking, although his technique and focus require some refinement.  After consecutive five-set victories over Tsonga and Soderling, he sank his teeth into a quarterfinal against Murray with admirable confidence.  Even if his shot selection remains a bit puzzling at times, he should strike fear into the leading contenders on fast hard courts where he needs to hit fewer winners in each rally.  His peers may wish that they shared his effortless serve and a court coverage surprisingly comprehensive for an offense-oriented player.  B+

Radwanska:  Seemingly doomed against Date in her opener, the Pole climbed out of a double-break deficit in the final set and later would save two match points before outlasting Peng.  A canny counterpuncher with almost no first-strike power, Radwanska never will win a major but has earned her return to the top 10 with one of the most distinctive and nuanced games in the WTA.  Additional credit for reaching the quarterfinals of a major from which she tentatively had withdrawn last fall.  B+

WTA lefties:  Since virtually all of the last decade’s Slam champions have swung with their right hand, one found the first-week success of the southpaws surprising and a bit refreshing.  Running aground on the shoals of Zvonareva, the Czech lefties Benesova and Kvitova combined to dispatch no fewer than four seeded players, while their compatriot Safarova held set points against the world #2 in the second round.  The most likely to leave an impact on the WTA, Kvitova relied upon a versatile forehand and a harsh combative energy to topple Stosur and Pennetta.  And one should not forget the exploits of Russian lefty Makarova, generally considered a doubles specialist.  Before stretching Clijsters into a first-set tiebreak, she won two final sets against Ivanovic and Petova that totaled 32 games.  B+

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland wipes his face with a towel in his semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day eleven of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 27, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Federer:  Beginning another Slam semifinal streak, the defending champion oscillated between the divine and the mortal realms throughout the first week.  Two rounds after he squandered a two-set lead to Simon in a draining, nerve-jangling encounter, Federer needlessly tossed away a set to the unprepossessing Robredo.  Dominant against Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, he shifted from predator to prey in his semifinal against Djokovic.  Had he found a way to win a second set in which he led 5-2, that encounter could have veered onto an entirely different trajectory.  At that stage, however, Federer proceeded to lose eight of the next nine games, a sin that he never would have committed in his prime.  Having heard similar statements after a similar loss here three years ago, we hesitate to proclaim the end of the Federer era, but for the first time since 2003 he holds none of the major titles.  B+/B

Berdych:  Having reached the final two majors ago and crashed out in the first round one major ago, the enigmatic Czech struck a balance between those two extremes in a quarterfinal run that included a victory over Verdasco.  Utterly unable to disturb Djokovic in the quarterfinals, though, he won just eight games from the eventual champion and remains vulnerable to anyone who can expose his monochromatic style.  The draw will need to unfold in his favor in order for him to win a major.  B+/B

Wawrinka:  Jettisoning his wife and child in order to extract as much as he could from his career, the Swiss #2 looked stronger than the Swiss #1 during a first week in which he did not drop a set to Monfils or Roddick.  Buttressed by pugnacious coach Peter Lundgren, the gentle Wawrinka seemed on the verge of igniting an inner fire.  Then he played the Swiss #1 and wilted again, winning just seven games.  B

Azarenka:  In our 2011 preview, we predicted that the Belarussian would rebound from a wildly erratic 2010 campaign.  From one perspective, reaching the second week of a major constituted a small step forward from her premature Slam losses last year.  From the other perspective, she should have found a way to muster more than perfunctory resistance to Li Na, an opponent whom Azarenka had severely tested and even defeated in the past.  Counterbalancing her outstanding backhand, footwork, and movement, her forehand disintegrates more readily than it once did, and her serve remains more a liability more often than a weapon.  B

Soderling:  Never having won consecutive matches the season’s first major, the Swede finally reached the second week  and appeared to struggle with a foot injury during his five-set loss to Dolgopolov.  While his embarrassingly error-strewn performance that day may have stemmed from the ailment, we expected more determination and less listlessness from a player who had dominated the Brisbane field and just captured the #4 ranking from Murray.  Soderling retains that status after the tournament, but the Scot has effectively regained fourth place in the ATP food chain for the moment.  B/B-

Sharapova:  Easily surpassing her abysmal performance here in 2010, the 2008 champion showed glimpses of her once-majestic form in the second set against Razzano and the last two sets against Goerges.  Defeated for the first time in a Slam night session, however, she never quite arrived on the court against Petkovic until she trailed by a set and 5-1.  Although (as Petkovic discovered) she remains a difficult foe to finish, her chances of winning seven straight matches at a major in the near future seem remote at best.  Can new coach Thomas Hogstedt rekindle the focus and intensity in a competitor who now seems sporadically disinterested?  B/B-

Samantha Stosur Samantha Stosur of Australia serves in her third round match against Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic during day six of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

Stosur:  With the eyes of Australia upon her, the 2010 Roland Garros finalist crumbled embarrassingly against Kvitova in a Rod Laver night session.  Unable to sustain multiple leads in the first set, Stosur failed to test the Czech lefty thereafter and continues to struggle with self-belief.  We may not find out until the clay season whether this congenial veteran will stagnate or continue to climb.  B-

Roddick:  A principal reason why no Americans reached the quarterfinals at the season’s first major, he may have found himself fortunate to escape Robin Haase in the second round, when the Dutchman struggled with an ankle injury.  No such deus ex machina descended to save Roddick in the fourth round, though, when Wawrinka routinely menaced his serve and regularly outhit him from the baseline.  Unable to win as many points on his first serve as he once could, the American has not quite regained his energy after a bout of mono last year.  But at least he didn’t flame out in the opening round like the frustrating Querrey.  B-

Davydenko:  What a difference a year and a wrist injury make.  Last year, commentators labeled him a legitimate contender for the Melbourne crown.  After a first-round defeat at this year’s Australian Open, the Russian looks ready to recede into obscurity as his ranking dips outside the top 30.  C

Jankovic:  Still a threat on clay and the slowest hard courts, the Serb has a losing record since Wimbledon and must reverse her fortunes dramatically in order to mount a somewhat decent title defense at Indian Wells.  Always ill, injured, or exhausted, she may spend the rest of her career paying for her foolishly workaholic schedule during her peak.  C

Rafael Nadal - 2011 Australian Open - Day 10

Nadal:  At least for now, Rod Laver remains the only men’s player who has won four consecutive majors in the Open era.  Entering the tournament depleted by illness and an overextended offseason, Nadal nevertheless accelerated steadily through the first four rounds and seemed on the verge of launching  yet another second-week surge.   Rivals and fans alike must wonder what might have happened had his ever-beleaguered body not betrayed him as it did here in 2010.  Incomplete

Milos Raonic:  Charging out of nowhere through the qualifying draw, he won as many matches as did the eventual champions, conquered US Open semifinalist Youzhny, and took a set from a top-10 opponent (Ferrer).  Can this virtual unknown consolidate that success, or will he become the Gilles Muller of Melbourne?   Visitor Permit

Ivanovic:  Undone as much by an untimely abdominal injury as an inspired Makarova, the 2008 finalist competed doggedly throughout an epic first-round defeat far more creditable than last year’s second-round fiasco.  Having not reached a Slam quarterfinal in three years, she nevertheless showed sufficient self-belief to battle deep into the third set and save five match points.  If Ivanovic can restore her health, this setback should not derail her for long.  Guarded optimism still seems appropriate for Ana, although she must capitalize upon the impetus of her  impressive fall campaign before it dissipates.   Temporary leave of absence

Venus:  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men might not be able to put this Humpty Dumpty back together again after accumulating injuries forced her first career retirement at a major.  We have not yet penned her tennis obituary, but we have compiled preliminary notes.  Permanent leave of absence?

Henin:  Some loved her.  Others hated her.  Everyone will miss her.  Nobody should miss our retrospective article on her, coming soon in Australia Tennis Magazine.    Honorary degree

***

Still a trifle knackered from the first Slam of the season, we return by the end of the week with a Fed Cup preview of all World Group and at least some World Group II ties.  Until then, we wave a fond farewell to Melbourne!

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning her second round match against Virginie Razzano of France during day three of the 2011 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 19, 2011 in Melbourne, Australia.

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Initially staggered by her opponent’s scintillating start, Sharapova came within a point of a 4-0 deficit in her second-round clash with Razzano.  Swiping aside three straight break points, however, the Siberian refused to surrender the set but instead showcased her trademark determination late in the opening set, as well as an startlingly delicate lob that secured a key service break.  Less encouraging was Sharapova’s failure to serve out the first set on two different occasions; despite a sensational first-serve percentage, she enjoyed an uncharacteristically low success rate on her first-serve points and faced 16 break points during the match.  Facing the swiftly rising Julia Goerges, the Russian will seek to open the match more convincingly than in her first two rounds, although her shoulder always requires a few games to reach its full range of movement.  Dispatched by the three-time Slam champion in Strasbourg last year, her German opponent has honed an excellent first serve and imposing backhand that could allow to seize control of rallies.  Since neither player prospers on defense, both will seek to deliver a mighty first strike that thrusts her foe onto her heels for the remainder of the point.  In order to reach the second week, therefore, Sharapova must aim to decide points on her own terms for better or for worse, eschewing complacency for a relentless intensity. 

Elsewhere on Day 5:

Wozniacki vs. Cibulkova:  Facing the Slovak for the second straight tournament and the second straight major, the world #1 comfortably triumphed on a windy night in New York before falling to her in the first round of Sydney.  Despite disappointing weeks there and in Hong Kong, Wozniacki has advanced through the first two rounds as smoothly as any of the women’s contenders, justifying her belief that the season-opening events did not presage an early exit at the season’s first major.  Limited by her diminutive stature, Cibulkova has few weapons with which to threaten the Dane from the baseline but cannot rely upon consistency to outlast her.   The matchup thus tilts in Wozniacki’s favor unless she sinks into the inexplicably passive mentality that characterized her loss at the Australian Open last year and her Sydney loss to the 63-inch Slovak, whom she previously had dominated.  Nvertheless, one should note that Cibulkova reached the US Open quarterfinal with a surprising victory over Kuznetsova, and the guidance of Safina’s former coach Zeljk Krajan appears to have revived her once-flagging career.

Henin vs. Kuznetsova:  The WTA corollary to Federer-Roddick, this rivalry (or non-rivalry) began at Wimbledon eight years ago and has spanned clashes at every major, including two major finals.  Collecting 16 of their 18 encounters, Henin has won all of their Slam contests as well as their last eight hard-court meetings in a streak that extends back to 2004.  Kuznetsova frequently has positioned herself to win but faltered in tiebreaks or third sets.  When she visited the Sydney zoo three years ago, Sveta half-jested that she should bring a reptile onto court in order to fluster the steely Belgian.  Yet she may not need such assistance against an Henin who appeared especially fragile in a three-set opener against the hard-hitting Mirza, similar to Kuznetsova in her fondness for mighty forehands.  Testing Henin’s tentative movement, the two-time Slam champion perhaps can hit through her from the baseline more easily than she once could.  Dwindling in confidence herself since a brutal 2010 campaign, though, Sveta may crumble under the psychological burden of conquering a familiar nemesis who has defeated her more often than any active player.

Malisse vs. Federer:   Overshadowed by Henin and Clijsters, the Belgian waffle has battled injuries throughout his career that have undermined his evident talents.  Despite his lowly ranking, he troubled Federer during their last meeting at the 2006 Rogers Cup, when Malisse came within a tiebreak of stunning a player who came within a single victory of a calendar Slam this year.  While he lacks the consistency and the fitness to challenge the Swiss legend in a best-of-five format, an entertaining set or two might ensue if the world #2 enters in mortal guise as he did against Simon.  The X-man’s crisp, flat groundstrokes set up his fluid transition game, taking away time from his adversaries when he strikes his approaches with precision and crisp technique.  If the deified form of Federer swaggers onto the court, though, he should stride briskly into the second week.    

Wawrinka vs. Monfils:  Gamboling and gambling himself into deep trouble two rounds ago, Monfils tottered only slightly further from defeat than did Verdasco against Tipsarevic.  Likewise invigorated by the reprieve, the top-ranked Frenchman cruised through his meeting with the recently resurgent Swiss #2 in Valencia last fall on one of the ATP’s slowest hard courts.  Bolstered (and loudly exhorted) by eccentric coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka aims to counter Gael’s artistic flourishes with sturdy, methodical consistency.  Among the pleasures of watching Monfils is his unpredictability, which will contrast with the workmanlike air exuded by his opponent.  We expect a series of compelling rallies in which each competitor leisurely probes the other’s defenses, circling cautiously before delivering a conclusive blow.

Venus vs. Petkovic:  During one of the second round’s oddest encounters, the elder Williams appeared to derive additional focus and intensity after an excruciating injury in the first-set tiebreak.  Yet the question of her recovery looms over this appetizing encounter with a German upstart determined to crack the stranglehold of the WTA elite.  An ambitious shotmaker still searching for consistency, Petkovic reached the Brisbane final but struggled early in a second-round victory over a qualifier that should not have proved so complicated.  Unlike Zahlavova, she can assert control over rallies rather than depending upon errors from Venus, who therefore cannot rest secure in the knowledge that her opponent will not return fire.  Just as compelling as the question of the American’s injury is the uncertainty surrounding the German’s response should she seize the upper hand, which looks plausible if perhaps not probable.  Unable to deliver the coup de grace to Kuznetsova at Roland Garros last year, Petkovic could not rise to the occasion when victory hovered just a point away.  Has she learned from that experience?

Troicki vs. Djokovic:  Sparring no fewer than four times in 2010, the Serbs collide in a tournament where their compatriots have not fared well thus far.  Although Djokovic has emerged victorious from their six previous meetings, the often overlooked Troicki came within three service holds of stunning the world #3 in the first round of the US Open.  At an event that Nole eventually won in Dubai, moreover, he found himself outmaneuvered by the Sydney finalist for the first set and a half before his superior talents finally shone through.  Probably more confident than at any other time in his career, Troicki nearly upset Nadal in Tokyo last fall and claimed his first career title in Moscow.  While Djokovic clearly possesses superior talents in virtually every department of the game, his countryman always has possessed the offensive firepower to punish him for a lapse, such as his second-set stumble a round ago.  Despite an oddly arrhythmic technique, his serve frustrated Nadal throughout three tight sets in Tokyo.  Like Wawrinka, however, he may not summon the courage to topple the greatest athlete in his nation’s history on one of his sport’s greatest stages.

Nishikori vs. Verdasco:  Two players who have accumulated outstanding fitness will bring their strikingly divergent styles to the battlefield.  Less immediately apparent than Verdasco’s mighty offensive arsenal, Nishikori’s tools include his lithe movement, crisp technique, intelligent point construction, and mental resilience.  On the other hand, Verdasco displayed a surprising degree of physical and mental endurance as he ground down an obdurate Tipsarevic in one grueling rally after another.  Thrust to the brink of the precipice not once but three times, the 2009 semifinalist kept defeatism at bay by punctuating each crackling forehand with an emphatic fistpump.  Rewarded by the Serb’s unexpected collapse, he may play more freely in future rounds after that reprieve, but he must beware of relaxing too sharply  against the unprepossessing Nishikori.

Berdych vs. Gasquet:  When the Czech collides with the Frenchman, an underachiever of the past confronts an underachiever of the past, present, and likely future.  Inspiring confidence in the former was Berdych’s determined response to a one-set deficit against the dangerous Kohlschreiber, and he could profit from that experience if Gasquet unleashes one of his patented torrid streaks.  Likened by more than one commentator to a microwave, the Frenchman sometimes sizzles through passages in which he seemingly cannot miss even the most audacious shots.  Just as often, though, he can labor through arid stretches when he struggles to time even the most routine groundstrokes.  Central to Berdych’s mid-career breakthrough is his heightened, more durable focus, a trait that will aid him in exploiting Gasquet’s lulls.  The Czech’s monochromatic style generally proves more efficient albeit less scintillating than the Frenchman’s sophisticated elegance, as textured and as fragile as a tapestry.  As the sport increasingly revolves around unvarnished baseline power, the Soderlings, Del Potros, and Berdyches will profit at the expense of the graceful Gasquets.

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Responding to two requests for the Day 5 preview, we welcome any other suggestions that you might have, either in the comments or on Twitter.

In the final article of our Australian Open preview series, we scan both draws one quarter at a time to discuss the potential narratives that might unfold during the season’s first major.  Many are the hopes that spring eternal in Melbourne, but few are the hopes that find reward.  Who will tower above the competition like a skyscraper in the desert?

ATP:

First quarter:  Atop a somewhat benign section looms a Spaniard with a 21-match winning streak at majors and the 2009 title in Melbourne.  Unlikely to face any severe test until the quarterfinals, Nadal might dispatch Queens Club nemesis Feliciano Lopez in the third round before starting the second week against 2010 semifinalist Cilic.  Yet the Croat has proved an immense disappointment over the past several months and might tumble in a third-round confrontation with the even taller Isner, who appeared to have recovered from his Wimbledon exertions with a credible performance at the Hopman Cup.  On the other side of this quarter stand a pair of mercurial competitors in Youzhny and Llodra, both of whom surged to startling heights during the second half of 2010.  The Russian should profit more from the Melbourne courts than the Frenchman, a serve-and-volley specialist fonder of fast surfaces.  While a scintillating clash with Hewitt beckons for Nalbandian in the first round, the 27th seed and Auckland finalist will eye a rematch of that final against Ferrer in the third round.  Although Nalbandian and Ferrer have notched notable victories over Nadal, they will not intimidate him as easily as they did when injuries hampered his confidence.  He remains most vulnerable to them on hard courts, his least favorite surface, but he should outlast either of them unless his illness and peripatetic offseason have wearied him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  After the publicity generated when Soderling gained a top-four seed in Melbourne, the draw whimsically negated that advantage by situating him in the same quarter with the Scot whom he supplanted.  The Swedish sledgehammer never has penetrated past the second round at the season’s first major, a puzzling statistic that surely will vanish when he overcomes fading dirt devil Starace and a qualifier.  Seeking to intercept Soderling before the quarterfinals, promising talents Bellucci and Gulbis have not yet uncovered more than the crust of their potential.  Will they spring into the headlines at a tournament renowned for surprises?  A surprise finalist here three years ago, Tsonga will pit his insouciant athleticism against the fourth seed’s grimly mechanical style.  Offered a more accommodating draw, meanwhile, Murray will open his campaign against a pair of anonymous foes and then the lowest seed in the draw.  Like Soderling, he could face a former Australian Open finalist in the fourth round, where Baghdatis will seek to buttress another memorable run upon his elevated fitness.  Having reached the second week at the last three majors, Melzer might mount a more plausible challenge to the world #5 should he trump the Cypriot in the third round, while Del Potro smolders ominously.  The top two seeds still should collide in the most intriguing quarterfinal of the draw, where the surface should provide Murray with a slight edge.

Semifinalist: Murray

Third quarter: Toppling Soderling in the first round last year, Marcel Granollers faces Djokovic in his Melbourne opener this year.  Considering the third seed’s outstanding form late in 2010, however, lightning probably will not strike twice.  But then the chronically troublesome Karlovic will hurl much more literal thunderbolts at the Serb, who also must navigate past burgeoning compatriot and near-US Open nemesis Troicki a round later.  The opposite side of the quarter will begin to answer one of the season’s key questions, namely the second act that Berdych will produce after his convincing summer and equally unconvincing fall.  Aligned to collide for the second straight year in Melbourne, Davydenko and Verdasco prowl just outside the elite group of contenders, searching for a crack in the citadel’s wall.  Perhaps an upstart like Nishikori will spare Australian fans the ordeal of an encore between the Russian and the Spaniard, who collaborated on one of 2010’s uglier matches.  Defeated in two of the tournament’s recent first-round matches, Gasquet hopes to craft a happier narrative on this occasion as time trickles inexorably away from him.  Opportunity knocks in this section of the draw, where question marks hover above all of the familiar names…except one.

Semifinalist: Djokovic

Fourth quarter:  In a region stacked with American opponents, Federer should relish the opportunity to extend his suffocating dominance over Roddick should they meet as arranged in the quarterfinals.  Lurking to ambush the latter is the recently reinvigorated Monfils, who looked more focused than usual during a fall season that included a Tokyo victory over the American.  His Gallic flair regularly irks and often flusters Roddick, but the Frenchman might find himself flustered by fellow US Open quarterfinalist Wawrinka.  A somewhat steadier competitor than Monfils, the Swiss #2 opened the season with a Chennai title that augured auspiciously for his partnership with Peter Lundgren.  Returning to relevance with a Sydney title run, Simon will target a third victory over Federer in their second-round meeting after the defending champion tests his steel against Lukas Lacko.  Can Fish reproduce his magnificent effort from the Cincinnati final, where he came within a tiebreak of toppling the world #2?  A round earlier, his internecine contest with Querrey should open a window onto the future of American tennis.  But that thread represents merely a tasty subplot in a section that has “RF” monogrammed all over it.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Novak Djokovic

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates after winning championship point after the women's final match against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day thirteen of the Australian Open 2008 at Melbourne Park on January 26, 2008 in Melbourne, Australia.

WTA:

First quarter:  A far more precarious #1 than Nadal, Wozniacki seeks to forget her stagger through Sydney against occasional giant-killer Dulko, who has claimed Sharapova, Ivanovic, and Henin among her marquee victims.  Two rounds later, revenge would taste sweet for the gentle Dane when she confronts her Sydney conqueror, Cibulkova.  While her route to the quarterfinals looks less friendly than some of her 2010 draws, Wozniacki still should edge past Bartoli or Wickmayer, both of whom looked fallible in the preliminary events.  Among those lurking in the shadows, though, is home hope Jarmila Groth; the sprightly Aussie could march into the second week if she can vanquish Wickmayer in a thorny opener.  Gifted two comfortable rounds, Henin will rekindle her one-sided rivalry with Kuznetsova if the slumping Russian can defuse the streaking Mattek-Sands.  And one overlooks Schiavone at one’s own peril, especially since the Italian defeated the Belgian in their previous meeting (Dubai 2008).  This potential battle of Roland Garros champions could offer plenty of dramatic intrigue, as would a rematch of Henin’s three-set Miami quarterfinal against Wozniacki.

Semifinalist:  Henin

Second quarter:  Arguably the strongest section of the draw, it could evolve into a pair of fourth-round encounters that would intersect Venus with Sharapova on one side and Li Na with Azarenka on the other.  Uncomfortably wedged between them are several formidable foes, not least Rezai.  The prodigious ball-striker muscled Jankovic off the court in Sydney and should engage in a feisty second-round encounter with Dokic, with the winner advancing to test Li.  Recovering from a heel injury, Hantuchova seems unlikely to muster much resistance against Azarenka, but the ambitious Petkovic surely believes that she can challenge Venus after their contrasting starts to 2011.  Somewhat an enigma since her Wimbledon loss last summer, the elder Williams sister clearly has the weapons to win this title and will face no opponent in this quarter who can disrupt her rhythm or drag her out of her comfort zone.  Her clash with the equally uncertain Sharapova defies facile prediction, for the Russian holds the edge in their hard-court rivalry, but the American convincingly won their only recent meeting.  Can Li duplicate her semifinal run here last year?  Holding a winning record against the other three players in her section, she looks primed to extend her impetus from Sydney just as she did at Wimbledon after winning Birmingham.

Semifinalist:  Li

Third quarter:  Embedded in this section is the tournament favorite, Clijsters, who suffered a setback in the Sydney final despite a generally reassuring week.  Aligned against 2009 finalist Safina in her opener, the Belgian must elevate her level immediately in order to surmount an obstacle more ominous than her next two opponents.  The path grows stony again in the fourth round when Clijsters faces either the evergreen Petrova, her former Melbourne nemesis, or the renascent Ivanovic.  Nestled among foes whom she defeated comfortably during the last year, the Serb looks likely to realize her modest objective of reaching the second week.   Unlikely to emerge from the other side, seventh-seeded Jankovic has showed few signs of regaining the form that she displayed during the 2010 clay season.  A more probable quarterfinal opponent for Clijsters, Kleybanova has split two final-set tiebreaks with her over the past two seasons and has relished her previous visits to Australia; after a second-week Melbourne appearance in 2009, the Russian nearly pummeled Henin into submission here last year before fading.  While neither the recuperating Radwanska nor Kimiko Date Krumm likely will advance to the quarterfinals, their first-round encounter should feature fascinating all-court tennis as their distinctive styles probe the court’s angles.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Fourth quarter:  Dazzling in Hong Kong and feckless in Sydney a week later, what will Zvonareva bring to the tournament where she reached her first major semifinal in 2009?  If she can navigate past Sydney semifinalist Jovanovski in the second round, the world #2 might gather momentum and cruise through a series of highly winnable matches into the quarterfinals or better.  A surprise quarterfinalist in 2010 after upsetting Sharapova, Kirilenko has troubled her compatriot before and might engage in a compelling battle with compatriot Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Russians riddle this quarter, Stosur finds herself in gentle terrain for her first two rounds before clashing with the volatile Kvitova, an unseeded champion in Brisbane.  Almost as intriguing as Kirilenko-Pavlyuchenkova is another potential third-round collision between Peer and Pennetta, an encore of their fraught US Open encounter.  Curiously, Pennetta has enjoyed substantial success against both Stosur and Zvonareva, the two most heralded figures in her section.   The Russian has imploded recently against the Australian as well as the Italian, so a meeting with either of them would test her newfound, much celebrated, and perhaps overestimated resilience.  Testing Stosur’s own resilience, meanwhile, is the pressure exerted by the championship-starved Aussie crowd, while Pennetta will shoulder the burden of seeking her first career Slam semifinal.  Questions proliferate, and answers may startle.

Semifinalist:  Stosur

Final:  Henin vs. Clijsters

Champion:  Kim Clijsters

***

We return very shortly with the first edition of our daily preview series on Melbourne, which will often rove far beyond the show courts to preview the most scintillating encounters of each day before it unfolds.  Prepare for a fortnight of fireworks with the “Wizards of Oz.”

Caroline Wozniacki Kim Clijsters of Belgium is congratulated at the net by Caroline Wozniacki of Belgium after their match in the singles final on day six of the WTA Championships at the Khalifa Tennis Complex on October 31, 2010 in Doha, Qatar.

Unveiling the sequel to our ATP preview of the Australian Open, we outline three tiers of WTA contenders in Melbourne, arranged in an inner circle, an outer circle…and an Arctic Circle.  Look no further for a comprehensive point-counterpoint discussion of the memorable fortnight to come.

Inner circleWhether from pedigree, recent form, or both, these five mount the most convincing claims to the Daphne Akhurst Cup.

Wozniacki:  Burying a pedestrian first half beneath a dazzling second half, the world #1 reached the final in six of the eight tournaments that she played after Wimbledon and sailed home with the trophy at all but one of them.  In the aftermath of gaining the top spot, she brushed aside the surrounding controversy to capture the Premier Mandatory title in Beijing and reach the final at the year-end championships.  While the high bounce and modest pace of the Melbourne courts should suit Wozniacki’s playing style, its relaxed atmosphere will complement her perpetually sunny personality.  Opportunity knocks for the Dane at a time when most of the WTA elite struggles with injuries or confidence, and she continues to dominate her peers, suggesting that time rests firmly on her side.

On the other hand:  Carrying the dubious mantle of the #1 ranking, Wozniacki will shoulder increasing pressure as she seeks a maiden Slam; neither Jankovic nor Safina rose to the occasion in the same situation during the last two years.  Halted by Clijsters in the two most important finals of her career, she continues to struggle against fellow former #1s with the sole exception of a victory over Sharapova at the US Open.  Wozniacki also slumped out of Melbourne in dismal fashion against Li Na last year, striking just three winners, while she fell to Cibulkova this week in her Sydney opener.

Clijsters:  The clear favorite in a Serena-less field, Kim has maintained a sterling record during her comeback against everyone else in this inner circle, winning all nine of her meetings with Wozniacki, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  As impressive as the Dane in the second half, the Belgian won the two most significant tournaments on the post-Wimbledon calendar, accomplishments that she garnished with a Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Clijsters also collected the coveted Miami tournament with consecutive wins over Henin and a hobbled Venus, erasing the doubts that arose from a perplexing start to 2010.  Surely aware that a non-US Open major title would greatly boost her legacy, she has hinted at a second, permanent retirement in 2012 and thus may enter Melbourne with elevated urgency.

On the other hand:  Toppled ignominiously by Petrova in last year’s Australian Open, Clijsters looked clueless and rusty as she struggled for rhythm.  Built around consistency and durability, she remains vulnerable to an early, self-inflicted wobble against an inspired upstart.  Although she won both of her hard-court meetings with Henin in 2010, those suspenseful matches hinged upon a pair of third-set tiebreaks and witnessed stark momentum shifts.  Anything and everything could happen if the Belgians clash again in Melbourne.

Venus: In the absence of her little sister, the elder Williams may bring greater intensity to a major that she oddly has never won.  Without Serena in New York, she charged to within a tiebreak of the final and likely the title.  Venus has struggled with knee injuries for much of 2010 but claims to have regained her health and hence her lithe mobility; moreover, she still has the ability to unleash mighty serves on crucial points.  Far more erratic than she once was, she nevertheless can rely upon greater experience than most of her challengers, only one of whom has claimed an equal number of major titles.  Even when she sinks well below her best, Venus usually finds a way to navigate past all but the fiercest and most talented foes.

On the other hand:  The American has played only one tournament since a dispiriting defeat to Pironkova in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, and she did not impress during losses to Zvonareva and Li at a Hong Kong exhibition.  Far from imposing is her history at the Australian Open, which includes a second-round loss to Suarez Navarro and an almost unwatchable debacle against Li last year.  When her serve wanders away, the rest of her game rushes after it, and it’s difficult to imagine her controlling her unruly weapons through seven consecutive matches against progressively sterner opponents.

Henin:  One of only two former champions in the draw, the diminutive Belgian dynamo crafted a memorable fortnight in Melbourne a year ago, when she hurtled within a set of the title before Serena mustered all of her resources to halt her.  Despite concern over the elbow injury that curtailed her 2010 campaign, Henin won all of her singles matches at the Hopman Cup last week without dropping a set.  Since the Australian Open does not rank high among her comeback goals, she will not place as potentially crippling a psychological burden upon herself as she will at Wimbledon.  Still intimidating to most of the WTA, Justine may win some matches on reputation alone, allowing her to settle into the tournament and accumulate confidence.

On the other hand:  After the initial momentum of her comeback subsided, we noticed that Henin often found herself on the wrong side in some of the season’s most thrilling matches, including all of her meetings with Clijsters.  Emotionally frail even before her “first” retirement, she never quite settled into the amplified aggression that she seeks to employ in her comeback.  On a surface less swift than Wimbledon and New York, Justine may find fewer opportunities than she would wish to exploit her unsurpassed talents in the forecourt, while the high bounce does not favor her low contact point.

Sharapova:  Armed with a new coach, new racket, new shoes, and new schedule, the leonine Siberian seeks to replicate her memorable 2008 title run, when the high-bouncing surface proved an ideal venue for her ultra-flat groundstrokes.  Sharapova showed increased commitment this season by entering a WTA event in Auckland rather than her customary exhibition, and her premature exits at the last three majors stemmed principally from draws that aligned her against Henin, Serena, and Wozniacki.  Severely testing her opponents in the first two of those defeats, she held match points against Clijsters in Cincinnati during an uplifting summer.  Like Venus, Sharapova brings vast experience and competitive resilience to each of her matches, battling until the final point.

On the other hand:  A first-round loser to Kirilenko at last year’s Australian Open, the Russian found the medium-speed hard courts somewhat too slow for a game that has eroded in consistency.  She has reached only one Slam quarterfinal since her 2008 title run here, and her injury has drained away some of her confidence.  In Auckland, Sharapova fell to world #88 Greta Arn after a generally indifferent week, so she carries little momentum to Melbourne.  Also like Venus, she might struggle to control her massive arsenal throughout an entire fortnight against a diverse range of opponents.

Outer circleWhile they may need a few of the stars to align in their favor, these players possess more than sufficient talent to ambush the favorites.

Zvonareva:  Seeking a third consecutive Slam final, the world #2 stunned Clijsters and Wozniacki at the last two majors of 2010 before falling to the defending champion at both of them.  Her versatile, tactically subtle style should find fluent expression on the medium-speed surface of Rod Laver Arena, where her rallying skills will amply compensate for her lack of an overpowering serve.  Even before her 2010 breakthrough, Vera achieved her strongest Slam performance with a semifinal at the 2009 Australian Open.  Not quite bulletproof psychologically, she finally has learned how to channel her perfectionist streak and no longer permits momentary lapses to fluster her.  In a Hong Kong exhibition last week, she thrashed leading contenders Venus and Wozniacki in an imposing statement of intent.

On the other hand:  In both of her Slam finals, Zvonareva’s latent negativity resurfaced to hamper her performance.  Last year at the Australian Open, she dissolved against Azarenka in predictably tearful fashion after holding a commanding lead.  After the Russian played so far above expectations in 2010, one expects a slight relapse early in 2011 as expectations mount.  Despite her victories over Clijsters and Wozniacki at majors, she has not yet proven herself against the other members of the inner circle.

Stosur:  Similar to Zvonareva, she delivered distinctly the best performance of her career last year, reaching the Roland Garros final with victories over Henin and Serena.  The best server in the WTA outside the Williams sisters, Stosur will find her kick serve ideally suited to the high-bouncing surface in Melbourne.  She extended her success from clay to hard courts during the second half of 2010, when she pushed Clijsters to three sets in the US Open quarterfinal and reached the semifinal in Doha before falling to the Belgian again.  An asymmetrical baseliner who aims to hit as many forehands as possible, Stosur will have more time to run around her backhand on the medium-speed surface than she did in New York.

On the other hand:  Carrying the mantle of home hope once held by Hewitt, the understated Aussie bears the pressure of her nation’s thirst for a Slam champion at its own major.  Since Stosur relies more heavily on a single shot (her serve) than most contenders, she has a mechanical, relatively one-dimensional style and thus becomes a vulnerable target for aggressive baseliners if her serve falters.  Shaky in Brisbane last week, the world #6 mustered just six games against compatriot Jarmila Groth; Sydney started much more promisingly for her, however.

Ivanovic:  Bursting back into relevance by winning 13 of her last 15 matches in 2010, the Serb romped through a sprightly start to 2011 at the Hopman Cup despite another loss to Henin.  The 2008 runner-up in Melbourne found her heavy forehand ideally suited to the surface there, and the high bounce lifts an opponent’s groundstrokes into her high strike zone.  Now winning the close matches that she regularly lost during her slump, Ivanovic has largely curbed her wayward ball toss and started to swing through her backhand more confidently, thereby turning her forehand into an even more dangerous weapon.  Always at home in Australia, she enjoys fervent crowd support there that will boost her confidence in tense situations.

On the other hand:  Believing that she must develop more consistency before contending for majors again, Ivanovic has set realistic expectations for herself that prioritize reaching the second week at each Slam this season.  The Serb will have a relatively low seed in the Melbourne draw, so she could face one of the leading contenders as early as the third round.  Early in a partnership with Azarenka guru Antonio van Grichen, she may need more time to incorporate his contributions to her game.  Withdrawing from the Hopman Cup with an abdominal strain, she heads to Melbourne with a bit less court time than she would have preferred.

Kuznetsova:  One of the finest natural athletes in the WTA, Sveta already has captured two of the four jewels in the sport’s crown.  Her 2009 title run at Roland Garros followed a memorable quarterfinal against Serena at the Australian Open that season, during which she had nearly toppled the eventual champion before a heat delay allowed the American to regroup.  Parallel to Stosur and Ivanovic, her forehand-centric groundstroke game theoretically should prosper on this surface more than at the US Open.  Most lethal when least trumpeted, Kuznetsova has far too much talent to meander low in the top 30 for much longer and surely will explode soon.  Or will she?

On the other hand:  Often slow to find her strongest tennis early in the season, the two-time major champion never has reached a semifinal in Melbourne and fell to the fallible Petrova last year.  In 2010, she suffered one of her worst seasons since capturing the 2004 US Open, winning just one small title in San Diego and falling before the quarterfinals at every Slam and Premier Mandatory tournaments.  Having absorbed hard-court losses last year to players like Kulikova, Suarez Navarro, Vinci, and Cibulkova (twice), her confidence surely sank further after a deflating loss to Peng in Auckland.

Arctic CircleThree majors ago, Schiavone reminded the tennis world that not even the astonishing should astonish.  Meet the potential Schiavones of this year’s Australian Open.

Schiavone:  Once a Slam champion, always a Slam champion and a threat to win another major.  Fearless in the Roland Garros final, the Italian veteran followed Horace’s advice and carped the diem more boldly than most of her rivals.  After suffering a predictable hangover at Wimbledon, Schiavone charged to the quarterfinals of the US Open, where she tormented Venus through two tight sets before reluctantly succumbing.  Her inspired forecourt skills continue to frustrate the baseline-bound, rhythm-reliant younger generation of the WTA.

On the other hand:  Visibly weary towards the end of 2010, Schiavone withdrew from the Hopman Cup with a thigh injury and lost her Sydney opener to Kleybanova.   Although she has scored some success against Wozniacki, she has won just one of forty meetings against Clijsters, Henin, Venus, Sharapova, and Zvonareva.  Since she probably would need to defeat at least two of those opponents, one doubts that lightning can strike twice.

Jankovic:  A finalist at the 2008 US Open, the top-ranked Serb reached the semifinals in Melbourne that year and the semifinals at Roland Garros last year.  Among the other accomplishments in Jankovic’s sparkling first half were the Indian Wells title, where she comfortably conquered Wozniacki, and consecutive victories over the Williams sisters in Rome.  She always open the season relatively fresh before her workaholic schedule exerts its toll.  Changing her coach over the offseason, Jankovic appears to have returned to the counterpunching tactics that brought her to the top after abandoning an ill-fated attempt to trade movement for power.

On the other hand:  Throughout the second half of 2010, Jankovic struggled to win any matches at all as she ceaselessly complained of injuries, illness, or most often both.  At Sydney, this trend continued with a three-set loss to Rezai during which she could not capitalize upon the Frenchwoman’s erratic serving.  In contrast to Schiavone, furthermore, she crumbled at Roland Garros when opportunity knocked loudly for her to snatch a maiden major from her fellow, similarly Slam-less semifinalists.  The Serb’s last two appearances in Melbourne ended with desultory losses to Bartoli and Alona Bondarenko.

Li:  A surprise semifinalist in Melbourne last year, the Chinese star stunned Wozniacki and Venus consecutively before stretching Serena into two tiebreaks.  Unleashing her crisp, sometimes Davydenko-esque two-hander without mercy, Li demonstrated her mental tenacity by outlasting the elder Williams in a quarterfinal as tense as it was ragged.  She later reached the Wimbledon quarterfinals and the semifinal at the Premier Mandatory event in Beijing, showcasing her ability to deliver her best tennis on the most important occasions.  Deep in a major, Li surely wouldn’t wilt under pressure like so many of her contemporaries.

On the other hand:  Notoriously erratic, the 2010 semifinalist dropped three straight matches last season to Tatiana Malek, Elena Baltacha, and Timea Bacsinszky, while other nemeses included Dulgheru and Zakopalova.   Although we don’t doubt that she can stay mentally firm throughout the fortnight, she may struggle to reproduce the pinpoint timing on her groundstrokes through seven matches.  Brilliant at battling power with power, Li often falters against opponents who can disrupt her rhythm or offer her little pace.

Azarenka:  At the 2009 Australian Open, she seized the initiative from Serena before heat illness overtook her; at the 2010 Australian Open, she thrust Serena to the edge of the precipice before Serena overtook her.  Azarenka typically has performed at her highest level early in the season and especially in Melbourne, when she remains physically and psychologically fresh.  A bristling hybrid of power and movement, she already possesses all of the tools necessary to win a first major despite never having reached a semifinal.  Already endowed with a champion’s mentality, the Belarussian could break through all at once just as her ancestor Sharapova did at Wimbledon in 2004.

On the other hand:  Azarenka’s electrifying passion oscillates between an asset and a liability, undercutting her at untimely moments.  While the unrelenting Australian heat could trouble her, a more serious concern stems from the recurrent hamstring injury that resulted in no fewer than seven retirements last year.  Still searching for a more imposing serve, she toiled through her Sydney opener and must win more efficiently at Melbourne in order to conserve her energy for the crucial rounds.

***

We return in two days with an article on potential ambush artists from both the ATP and WTA.  Who hopes to spring a surprise at the first major of 2011?

Amidst Christmas celebrations, Federer-Nadal exhibitions, and a series of review articles on 2010, the offseason meandered to its conclusion along a path more beguiling than boring.  With barely two weeks before the first major of 2011, Perth welcomes a glittering panoply of stars that includes five Slam champions and three former #1s.  A bubbly aperitif for the season to come, the Hopman Cup generally treads the line between exhibition and genuine tournament, providing not only light-hearted entertainment outside the sidelines but also compelling encounters between past, current, and future legends.  We sketch each team in one of the most talented groups ever to assemble beneath the Burswood Dome.

Serbia:  Concluding 2010 on an emphatic note, Djokovic and Ivanovic seek to consolidate those successes with an impressive beginning to 2011.  Just a month removed from his nation’s first Davis Cup title, the ATP #3 enjoyed only a fleeting respite from the calendar’s demands; on the other hand, the brief holiday will not have dulled his momentum.  Also eager to prove herself again is his sensuous leading lady, who hopes to buttress her late-season resurgence upon a partnership with Antonio van Grichen of Azarenka renown.  Saddled with a hobbling Jankovic, Djokovic reached the Hopman Cup final in 2008 while dazzling the Perth audience with his comedic flair as much as with his tennis.  Seeded #1 here for the first time, the Serbian team should enjoy similar success in 2011.  Likely to win all of their singles matches except Ivanovic-Henin, they own the two strongest serves in their group.  Although neither Serb has excelled during their sporadic ventures into doubles, mixed doubles often isn’t much more than the sum of its parts.  None of the Hopman Cup duos has accumulated significant experience together, so spectators will see four singles players on the same court rather than two doubles teams.

Great Britain:  Favored to progress from their group, Murray and Laura Robson reprise the partnership that carried them to last year’s final in Perth.  Despite a disappointing 2010 campaign, the Scot played his best tennis of the season at the Australian Open and faces substantial points to defend there in order to hold Soderling and others at bay.  An introverted personality, Murray might benefit from the Hopman Cup’s informal atmosphere, and he should cruise through his singles encounters with Starace, Mahut, and Isner.   Recently known more for verbal than actual volleys, the feisty Robson competed tenaciously at the Burswood Dome last year.  A former Wimbledon junior champion, this lefty bears her nation’s hopes for a first female Slam champion since Virginia Wade.  Such dreams still lie far ahead, but the Hopman Cup offers an excellent occasion for Robson to test her progress against more experienced opponents in a tension-free setting.

Belgium:  One abortive comeback behind her, Henin prepares to launch a second serve in 2011.  Still recovering from an elbow injury suffered at Wimbledon, the petite Belgian challenged Clijsters in an Antwerp exhibition in December.  Against the relentlessly hard-hitting trio of Molik, Shvedova, and Ivanovic, Henin can showcase her effortless movement and the versatility that remains the hallmark of her game.  Since ATP #178 Bemelmans probably won’t score any singles victories, his formidable partner must sweep the board if Belgium fancies a berth in the finals.  Superb at the net, Henin will have the opportunity to exhibit a set of skills infrequently displayed in singles when she accompanies Bemelmans in the doubles.  The doubles rubber also will allow her to experiment with creating angles on her serve, perhaps inspiring her to vary her accustomed pattern of targeting the center service line.

Italy:  Suddenly a familiar face in her home nation, Schiavone endeared herself to fans around the world with her spirited witticisms in the wake of her Roland Garros title.  Ready to revel in the Hopman Cuo’s light-hearted atmosphere, the Italian veteran hopes to befuddle less seasoned opponents with her crafty all-court arsenal.  Don’t be surprised to see Schiavone attempt one of Federer’s between-the-legs swipes as she did at the US Open, or amuse the crowd with one of her characteristically melodramatic explosions of emotion.  By contrast, her partner will seem a rather tepid affair, for Starace has achieved little outside clay and has struggled to reassert himself since a betting suspension paused his career.  As Schiavone likes to remind anyone who will listen, the Italian men still lag many leagues behind their female counterparts.

Australia:  Their best years well behind them, Hewitt and Molik attempt to eke out a few closing memories from their fading careers.  This unassuming pair should bask in the glow of Australia’s ever supportive tennis faithful, among the finest fans in the world.  Thoroughly outgunned by Djokovic, Hewitt will welcome the opportunity to construct court-stretching rallies that will grind down his other two opponents.  Despite an unimpressive performance at the Australian Open wildcard playoffs, Molik still can threaten whenever she connects with her first serve and shields that woeful backhand.  Much more comfortable at the baseline than at the net, Hewitt wobbled in doubles during the last Hopman Cup, and his 2011 partner will provide less reliable support than did 2010 partner Stosur (who abandoned Lleyton for the Brisbane beaches this year).

Kazakhstan:  Predictable winners of the Asian Hopman Cup playoff, Golubev and Shvedova will prove less accommodating foes than previous Asian entries in this competition.  Capturing his first career title at Hamburg last year, Golubev came within a third-set tiebreak of additional hardware in Kuala Lumpur.  Close to a seeded position at the Australian Open, the resident of northern Italy joins a fellow “passport Kazakh” who also lurks within the top 40.  Always high on the WTA’ s power index, Shvedova wastes little time with slices or drop shots.  While her shoot-first, think-later style requires some refinement, she reached the Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2010 and won doubles titles at both Wimbledon and the US Open, partnering Vania King.  Those latter achievements augur well for Kazakhstan’s fate in the mixed doubles, although Golubev lacks any notable successes in court-sharing enterprises.

France:  After Monfils limped away from the Hopman Cup, the French found a noble substitute in Mahut of Wimbledon first-round fame.  The medium-speed courts in the Burswood Dome will reward serve-and-volley less than the grass of the All England Club, but Isner’s accomplice will have an opportunity to reprise their legendary clash in a round-robin meeting at the Hopman Cup.  If they manage to split the first two sets, perhaps they can set a record for the longest third-set tiebreak in tennis history.  Eleven years his junior, Mahut’s partner has never won a main-draw match at a WTA event, placing her even further down the evolutionary chain than Robson.  Yet the 17-year-old Mladenovic already towers close to six feet and won an ITF doubles title in 2010, suggesting that she might have an impact at that stage.

USA:  The bland Isner and the anything-but-bland Mattek-Sands form quite an odd couple in the absence of original entry Serena Williams.  Probably tired already from the mere prospect of Mahut, Isner never quite recovered from their Wimbledon marathon after an auspicious first-half campaign.  Falling routinely to future opponent Murray at last year’s Australian Open, the American owns a serve even more formidable in doubles than in singles, as his partnership with Querrey illustrated.  Nevertheless, doubles also exposes Isner’s clumsiness at the net or with anything more delicate than his sledgehammer forehand.  A member of several triumphant Fed Cup doubles squads, the diminutive Mattek-Sands never shrinks from the spotlight and can be trusted to provide her zany brand of drama if the on-court action lags for long.

***

Higher in affluence and lower in charm, the Abu Dhabi event this weekend could result in the third exhibition meeting between Federer and Nadal during this offseason.  Aiming to ambush that narrative are Soderling and Berdych, both of whom reached a major final in 2010 and seek to move one step further in 2011.  Currently more distant from Slam glory, Tsonga and Baghdatis both have reached the final at the Australian Open but struggled with nagging injuries since their breakthroughs.  Will the top two celebrate the New Year in style, or will one of their rivals find another reason to dream?  Enjoy the exhibitions as we zoom into another scintillating season of tennis.

In the final article of our offseason series, we look forward rather than backwards and unfurl a series of predictions for the season to come.  Will we go 11 for 11 in ’11?

1) Federer-Nadal rivalry revives (somewhat):  Bereft of Slam meetings since the 2009 Australian Open, the greatest rivalry in sports lay dormant for most of the last two seasons.  After Nadal struggled with injury and confidence from mid-2009 through early 2010, Federer sank into a slump shortly before the Spaniard finally emerged from his.  With the aid of Paul Annacone, however, he showed flashes of vintage form during the fall and will have gained reassurance from defeating Nadal at the year-end championships.  Although Federer’s consistency will continue to wane with age, it seems probable that we will see at least one more Slam final with Rafa in 2011.  But perhaps we should ask whether we want to see several more iterations of a rivalry that has declined over their past few meetings.  Just as the Djokovic-Nadal semifinal in Madrid 2009 dwarfed the Federer-Nadal final there, the Murray-Nadal semifinal in London reduced the Federer-Nadal final to anticlimax.  The greatest rivalry in sports soon may become something less than the greatest rivalry in its own sport.

2) Djokovic wins a hard-court major:  Three long years ago, the Serb seemed a near-certain #1 when he dismantled Federer en route to the Australian Open title.  Enduring erratic and unconvincing performances at most majors since early 2008, Djokovic basked too long in the afterglow of his breakthrough and allowed his rivals to snatch the initiative from him.  When he finally scored a second Slam victory over Federer this year, he looked as surprised as anyone in the audience.  Just three months later, the Serb recorded what he considers the most impressive victory of his career with the Davis Cup title.  While the challenge of defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively may test his fitness, he should approach 2011 with renewed motivation.  Djokovic has little chance against the top two at Wimbledon or Nadal at Roland Garros, but he has repeatedly challenged them on the surface that best showcases his main advantage over the top two:  groundstroke symmetry created by the best backhand in tennis.

3) Murray doesn’t win a major:  In urgent need of guidance other than the clay specialist Alex Corretja, the Scot often lacks confidence against the top two on the grandest stages.  Accustomed to the role of supporting actor, Murray believes in himself enough to feel disappointment when he loses but not enough to win.  Mired in this quicksand between believing and not believing, the world #4 allows demoralizing losses to derail him for extended periods.  Moreover, he remains vulnerable on fast surfaces to the Verdascos, Tsongas, and even Wawrinkas of the ATP, high-risk but relatively one-dimensional shotmakers who can hit through his defenses when at their best.   Although timely aggression has won the Scot’s most important victories, he has proven reluctant to leave his counter-punching comfort zone for more than one or two matches at a time, as he must to win a major.  If Murray continues to collect more Masters 1000 titles, he may claim the dubious designation of “master of the minors” that a noted publication once inappropriately pasted on Nadal.

4) Del Potro starts slowly but finishes strong:  With a game built upon a ferocious forehand and spine-tingling aggression, confidence will prove essential to the Argentine’s revival.  In a pallid fall reincarnation, Del Potro scarcely resembled the player who battered Nadal and Federer into submission at the US Open.  Not a natural showman but a gentle, sensitive personality, he must accumulate tournament play before unleashing his weapons with full vigor; thus, he must hope that his draws do not situate him too close to a leading contender.  The clay season could offer an excellent opportunity for Del Potro to regain his rhythm by allowing him to engage in longer rallies.  By the second half, he should have reassembled his mighty game to a degree sufficient for success on the American hard courts where his greatest successes have occurred.  His fans have no cause to fear, for his vast reservoir of talent is destined to overflow sooner or later.

Novak Djokovic celebrates Davis cup HAIRCUTS! NOVAK DJOKOVIC, TEAM SERBIA CELEBRATE DAVIS CUP FINAL VICTORY

5) Serbia meets USA in the Davis Cup final:  If Djokovic maintains his devotion to the national team competition, the Ajde Attack should cruise through not only its opener against India but a subsequent round against the one-man show of Sweden or fading Russia.  While the Argentina of Del Potro and Nalbandian might lurk in the semis, Serbia’s far superior collective chemistry should prevail; another potential adversary, the Czech Republic, has grown less intimidating as Stepanek ages.  On the other side of the draw, American captain Jim Courier faces a Gonzalez-less Chile (albeit on clay) and then a fascinating clash with Spain on home soil.  Spurred by their energetic new leader and the return of Cup stalwart Roddick, the American team should edge a Spanish squad that probably will travel to the United States without Nadal, resting from another Wimbledon title.  If they can trust the evergreen Bryans to avenge a Davis Cup loss to Clement/Llodra, a semifinal with fragile France lies within Team USA’s grasp.  Considering the excellence of both Roddick and Djokovic in Davis Cup, one would expect a scintillating match if they battle for the silver salad bowl on the last day of the season.

6) Nadal, Wozniacki finish #1:  Entrenched well above his nearest competition, Nadal will enjoy opportunities to expand his lead further early in the season.  He will expect to surpass his quarterfinal result at the Australian Open and at least maintain his semifinal results from the spring Masters 1000 tournaments.  Unlikely to relinquish his dominance over the clay and grass seasons, he probably won’t defend all of his second-half points, but leading rivals Federer and Djokovic also defend significant amounts during that period.  For his WTA counterpart, mere durability and consistency should shield the #1 ranking from more talented, more erratic rivals.  Since the Williams sisters, the Belgians, and the other major (haha) contenders play a significantly shorter schedule, none of them can muster the requisite points total with anything less than thorough dominance, difficult to achieve in the WTA’s current period of parity.

7) Federer, Zvonareva do not finish #2:  Although he probably hasn’t won his final major, the Swiss superstar’s greatest seasons clearly lie behind him.  His peaks and valleys will heighten, and his schedule may shorten to preserve him for the majors that he covets.  While Djokovic won’t gain much ground at majors other than the Australian Open, he should prove more consistent than Federer at the Masters 1000 events.  An early loser at Indian Wells and Miami in 2010, the Serb has excelled at those events in the past and should shine there again with his struggles seemingly behind him.  During the clay Masters tournaments, he also should increase his point totals as he challenges Nadal more often than will Federer.  After an eye-opening 2010 campaign, Zvonareva seems ripe for a small sophomore slump.  Unless she can buttress her elevated status with a strong first half, she likely will buckle under the pressure of defending her outstanding performances at the season’s last two majors.

8 ) For the first time since 2006, the Williams sisters fail to win multiple majors:  Long impervious to the effects of time, this WTA dynasty finally began to totter late in 2010, when injuries to the elder sister’s knee and the younger sister’s foot derailed them for extended periods.  Merely a fragment of the champion that she once was, Venus has won no titles outside Dubai and Acapulco during the last two and a half years.  Far more menacing than her sister, Serena will forgo the opportunity to collect a record sixth Australian Open crown.  The younger Williams may not return until Miami or later, and she doesn’t seriously contend at Roland Garros in these latter stages of her career.  Still almost untouchable at Wimbledon, Serena will profit from the short points there as she regains her rhythm after the injury.  But she has become just one of several contenders at the US Open, and she has not won the season’s last two majors consecutively since the legendary Serena Slam of 2002-03.

9) Clijsters wins a major other than the US Open:  Even better in her second incarnation than her first, the Belgian enjoyed the finest season of her career in 2010.  During her comeback, she has won 13 of 14 matches against current and former #1s, including a dazzling 8-0 record against primary challengers Serena, Venus, Henin, and Sharapova.  And yet she still lacks a Slam title outside New York, an odd asterisk for a player who combines a balanced, consistent game with impressive athleticism.  Over the past year, most of her losses came against unexpected, usually Russian nemeses such as Petrova, Kleybanova, and Zvonareva.  Now further settled into her comeback, Clijsters will more often avoid those early-round stumbles while continuing to frustrate foes of her caliber.  As injuries raise questions over almost all of her rivals, the Belgian should seize the window of opportunity that will lie open as long as the younger generation continues to tread tentatively.

10) Azarenka bounces back:  In the wake of a breakthrough 2009 campaign, the Belarussian rather predictably regressed this year despite showing glimmers of what she will become.  The fiercest competitor among her peers, Azarenka also has the power, the versatility, and the athletic instincts of a future champion.  Barely blocked by Serena at the last two Australian Opens, she will relish the sight of early-season draws without the American.  Azarenka unveiled a sparkling all-court game at Melbourne and Dubai before injuries overtook her during the clay season; as those physical issues recede, her explosive movement will return.  Still flustered by quirky styles like those of Schiavone and Martinez Sanchez, she probably has gained focus and maturity after the adversity that she experienced this season.  Neither the grandest settings nor the most prestigious opponents intimidate the brash Belarussian vixen.

11) Ivanovic becomes the highest-ranked Serb in the WTA:  Finally surfacing from a two-year slump, the smiling Serb ended 2010 by winning two of her last three tournaments and 13 of her last 15 matches.  Although she will enter the Australian Open around the border of the top 20, she faces almost no points to defend between mid-January and early May.  Expanding her schedule for early 2011, Ivanovic thus can scramble up the rankings swiftly with respectable performances at the Australian Open, the Premier Five event in Dubai, and the Premier Mandatory events at Indian Wells and Miami.  At Roland Garros and Wimbledon, moreover, she won just one total match in 2010, so she will have ample opportunity to improve upon those performances and gobble up still more points.  Ivanovic’s confidence should rise from the encouraging first-half results that most observers anticipate, improving her chances of defending the second-half points that she accumulated this year.  Meanwhile, Jankovic has headed in the opposite direction by recording just six victories in nine second-half tournaments.  Since 57% of her total points come from three tournaments at Indian Wells, Rome, and Roland Garros, she could tumble precipitously if she falls early at one or two of them.  Turning 26 in February, Jankovic faces a losing battle with time as she attempts to reinvent herself.  Nearly three crucial years her junior, Ivanovic conversely can continue to believe that her best tennis still lies ahead.

***

Trying not to contradict anything that we said above, we now present the Slam champions of 2011.  Rest assured that we didn’t just pull names out of a hat.  We pulled them out of Serena’s mysterious cast.

Australian Open:  Djokovic, Clijsters

Roland Garros:  Nadal, Stosur

Wimbledon:  Nadal, Serena

US Open:  Federer, Sharapova

Happy Holidays!  After celebrating the first Christmas of this blog, we return next week with a Hopman Cup preview and more.

Having celebrated the most noteworthy accomplishments of this season, we now turn towards those who will approach 2011 determined to erase the memories of 2010.  Don’t worry if your favorite player lands on this list, for they find themselves in extremely exclusive company amidst five Slam champions, three former #1s…and one sheepish-looking GOAT.

Roger Federer Roger Federer of Switzerland breaks between sets during the men's singles Final match against Rafael Nadal of Spain on day thirteen of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 6, 2008 in London, England.

Federer:  With a majestic dismissal of longtime nemesis Murray at the Australian Open, the Swiss legend once again seemed the monarch of all he surveyed.  But his Melbourne momentum melted away like a snowball in the Australian summer, leaving behind an unsightly puddle.  At the Masters events in Indian Wells and Miami, Federer suffered uncharacteristic, eerily similar defeats to Baghdatis and Berdych after holding match points on both occasions.  Neither the Cypriot nor the Czech had defeated the world #1 before, so their triumphs perceptibly emboldened their peers.  Before the season reached its midpoint, even moderately sharp-toothed sharks had sighted the blood in the water and converged upon the figure who once had terrorized them with a casual flick of his well-coiffed hair.  Amidst defeats to players like Montanes and Hewitt, the highlight of Federer’s clay and grass campaigns came with a charge to the Madrid final—where he whiffed a routine forehand on the last point.  In addition to the #1 ranking, Swiss master’s streaks tumbled in swift succession, from his 23 consecutive Slam semifinals and eight consecutive Slam finals to his seven consecutive Wimbledon finals, six consecutive US Open finals, and seven consecutive seasons of winning either Wimbledon or the US Open.  Stirring to life in the second half under the guidance of Paul Annacone, Federer exacted a measure of revenge from Berdych and Baghdatis during the US Open Series.  Nevertheless, he would lose two more encounters after holding match points, including a demoralizing, often absent-minded loss to Djokovic in New York.  Salvaging some dignity at the year-end championships, the 16-time major champion scored a crucial victory over Nadal that may have reinvigorated him for 2011.  And a first Christmas with his new family should dull the disappointments suffered by this unflinching perfectionist.

Del Potro:  Through no fault of his own, the 2009 US Open champion became the single greatest disappointment of 2010 when a nagging injury curtailed his season after Australia.  At the year’s first major, his uninspired performance bore scant resemblance to the fearlessness with which he had dismantled Nadal and Federer in New York.  Into the silence surrounding the Argentine’s status seeped malicious rumors on his psychological condition, which lingered longer than he would have wished.  A few aborted comebacks behind him, Del Potro launched an unconvincing return in the fall before choosing to regroup and reload for 2011.  Thrilled by his sensational fortnight at the US Open, one hopes that he can challenge the hegemony of the top 5 once again.

Cilic:  After beginning 2010 with a 15-1 record that included two titles and the Australian Open semifinal, the latest Croatian tower of power recorded just a 25-21 record over the rest of 2010.  Unlike Del Potro, he lacked an injury alibi as his serve and forehand wandered capriciously out of his grasp.  Cilic proved in Melbourne that he can muster the courage and fortitude to compete at the elite level, battling through three five-setters en route to the best Slam performance of his career thus far.  After a listless loss to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez at Indian Wells, however, his season slowly disintegrated as foes such as Montanes, Seppi, Florian Mayer, and Andreas Haider-Maurer conquered an opponent who should have pulverized them with ease.  Deflated by a tepid summer, Cilic endured a five-set loss to the promising but limited Kei Nishikori at the US Open, where the Croat had upset Murray just one year before.  While he has too much talent to lie dormant for long, this extended period of stagnation (or worse) should invite him to address technical issues such as his awkwardly timed forehand swing.

Davydenko:  Like Federer, he began 2010 in sublime style before sagging thereafter.  A champion at last year’s World Tour Finals, the Russian battled past both of the top two in Doha before entering Melbourne as the trendy choice to win a maiden major.  For a set and a half of his quarterfinal against Federer, Davydenko’s stock soared higher than ever as he made the Swiss demigod look mortal with his crisp, breathless groundstrokes.  Offered a chance to establish a stranglehold upon the reigning #1, however, he shrank from the occasion in spectacular style by dropping the next 13 games.  Several weeks and an Indian Wells wrist injury later, his season slid inexorably downhill with several losses to players outside the top 50 and almost no pairs of consecutive victories until the fall, when he scored his first top-10 win since Australia over the wallowing Berdych.  Now adrift outside the top 20, Davydenko aims to recapture his former glory in 2011, but time is not on his side.  One senses that the Russian’s peak lies behind him.

Venus:  Winning 18 of her first 19 matches, the elder Williams sister defended titles in Dubai and Acapulco, reached the Miami final, and appeared in the second week of every major.  So why does Venus find herself in this disreputable neighborhood?  Unable to harness either her serve or her groundstrokes for a prolonged period, she unleashed a torrent of double faults and unforced errors during her loss to Li Na at the Australian Open, where the Chinese star proved all too willing a partner in crime.  Scattered across that 18-1 period, in fact, were early-match or mid-match meltdowns that Venus often escaped through the frailties of her opponents rather than her own excellence.  For example, we recall her three-set meeting with Hantuchova in Miami, a quasi-unwatchable quagmire that even the Slovak’s leggy charms couldn’t save.  Whatever had happened to Venus elsewhere, though, grass always had remained her refuge.  But this year she collected just five games from the unheralded Pironkova at Wimbledon as her glittering decade of achievements at the All England Club crashed to a stunning conclusion.  To her credit, Venus then showed the resilience of a champion by surging within a tiebreak of the US Open final before her serve abandoned her once more.   Although she probably has won her final major, her experience and her still seismic serve render her a dangerous threat to any adversary in any draw.  (While we hesitate to critique fashion, we also feel obliged to note the American’s hilariously disastrous outfits at the non-grass majors, which left Venus only somewhat more effectively attired than the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale.)

Azarenka:  For the second straight season, the Belarussian volcano ignited her season splendidly at the Australian Open, where she took a set and nearly more from Serena.  In fact, Azarenka lost only to the eventual champion at each of her first three tournaments, suggesting that she might build upon a 2009 campaign during which she reached three Slam quarterfinals and won Miami.  But she predictably imploded under the pressure of defending her Miami title, and injuries crippled her clay campaign.  From the grass season onwards, Vika alternated stirring results at relatively minor tournaments such as Eastbourne and Stanford with debacles at significant events such as Wimbledon and Cincinnati.  Her vertiginously erratic summer culminated with a concussion-caused exit from the US Open as disturbing as it was bizarre.  From the third set of her compelling semifinal with Wozniacki in Tokyo surfaced a metaphor for Azarenka’s season.  Trailing her rival and best friend 5-0, she rallied to win the next four games before meekly losing the tenth game.  Likewise, the coquettish Belarussian continually awakened hope in her fans but failed to convert her 2010 opportunities when it mattered most.  More talented than almost all of her contemporaries, Azarenka must subdue a pugnacious streak that still consumes her from within when matches grow tense.

Henin:  Just like Clijsters, she reached the final of the first major after a highly anticipated return.  In her first four tournaments, moreover, Henin played a starring role in three of the season’s most dramatic matches:  the Brisbane final, the Australian Open final, and her Miami semifinal with Clijsters.  But the petite Belgian settled for best supporting actress in each of those encounters, and she struggled to hone her ultra-aggressive new style throughout a year truncated by her injury at Wimbledon.  Dominant over Kim during their first incarnations, Justine dropped all three of their meetings in 2010 while sustaining a loss to giant-killer Gisela Dulko and a third-set bagel against Aravane Rezai on her beloved clay.  Although she collected titles at Stuttgart and the Dutch Open, Henin returned to pursue objectives more prestigious than those minor tournaments.  Ever a fireball of emotion, she displayed an affinity for reckless shotmaking that undermined her late in many of her losses.  And her serve, albeit amplified, continued to cost her matches with untimely double faults, much as it had in the last few months before she retired.  More fragile than most of her rivals, Henin may reconsider this comeback if it continues to fall short of the lofty standards that she imposes upon herself.  The career Slam for which she yearns still looks extremely distant.

Kuznetsova:  Winning multiple matches in just seven of seventeen tournaments, the Russian bristles with athletic ability but contents herself with showing us just the tip of the iceberg.  Gone before the quarterfinals at every major and every Premier Mandatory event, Kuznetsova displayed few glimmers of last year’s Roland Garros champion.  Outside her San Diego title, she defeated only one top-20 opponent during the entire season while falling to four players outside the top 50.  Considering the mercurial Russian’s proclivity for streakiness, an impressive 2011 campaign may lie in store after the disappointments of 2010.  Having forged and dissolved partnerships with multiple coaches recently, Kuznetsova must` continue to search for a patient, dedicated guide who can unlock her potential without succumbing to frustration.  Submerged below Zheng in the rankings, the former #2 must gather her concentration and confidence in order to rise above swaggering but less talented opportunists like Rezai and Kanepi, who will salivate over a vulnerable foe with an impressive pedigree.

***

Having spent the last several articles looking backward at the year that was, we next look forward to the year that will (or might) be.  Our next article features 11 predictions for 2011.

 

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Spearheaded by American #1 Roddick, the fledgling Atlanta event initiates the US Open Series today.  Similar to the “Road to Roland Garros,” these eleven tournaments (six ATP, five WTA) attempt to serve the dual purpose of affording players ample preparation for the year’s final major while creating a crescendo of enthusiasm among the sport’s followers.  Despite the attendant pomp and circumstance, the USOS often falls a bit short of its lofty designation as “the greatest roadtrip in sports,” especially in comparison with its momentous clay counterpart.  Yet these events do play a pivotal role in the calendar as the threshold to the season’s second half, which frequently offers a jarringly divergent set of narratives from the first half.  We present five potential plotlines for the 2010 edition.

1a)  Can the ATP top two extend their momentum? 

After an indifferent beginning to 2010, vultures were circling around the Spaniard and the Serb as commentators queried whether either of them could recapitulate their 2008 peaks.  First to awaken was Nadal, whose literally perfect clay season foreshadowed his second career Channel Slam.  Still slumbering on much of the terre battue, Djokovic reinvigorated himself with a Wimbledon semifinal run that once again illustrated his stylish, multifaceted all-court style.  So will Rafa dominate the hard courts as he did the clay and grass, and will Novak justify his elevated ranking over the summer?  Often weary from first-half exertions, Nadal rarely displays his most brilliant tennis in this phase of the season, whereas Djokovic has garnered his most consistent results at the US Open (three consecutive semifinals).  Nevertheless, the world #1 will enter both Masters Series events as the distinct favorite, while the Serb will attract far less attention than a typical #2; such a role might benefit the easily diverted Djokovic, though, allowing him to focus upon forehands and backhands.  [Some sources suggest that Nadal will play only one event in the US Open Series, but he has not yet withdrawn from either Canada or Cincinnati.]

1b)  Can the next two reverse their momentum?

Since a sparkling Melbourne campaign, Federer has suffered a series of prodigious blows on all three surfaces, culminating in an uninspired quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon.  To be sure, a similar scenario unfolded two years ago before the Swiss grandmaster rallied to capture three of the next four Slams, so discussions of his demise sound a trifle premature.  Yet his mid-season swoon looked much more disquieting this time, for his Slam losses occurred against players whom he had formerly dominated instead of against long-time nemesis Nadal.  Inscribed on almost every meaningful page in the sport’s record book, Federer recently has struggled for motivation at Masters Series events and will be vulnerable to any ball-bruising baseliner brimming with confidence.  Positively horrific between Melbourne and Wimbledon, meanwhile, Murray must avoid the mental torpor that descended upon him after his previous Slam disappointment.  The Scot excelled in Canada and Cincinnati last year but has exited before the semis at all five Masters Series events in 2010.

2)  Which American will enjoy the strongest summer?

Had Serena remembered to look before she stepped, this question would have been easy to answer.  In her absence, can Venus and Roddick rebound from their tepid Wimbledons to lead the charge?  Falling just one victory short of an Indian Wells-Miami double, Andy has endured pre-quarterfinal exits in his last four tournaments, while Serena’s sister has not won a single North American hard-court event in nearly a decade.  The toast of New York a year ago, Melanie Oudin has faded into near-invisibility in 2010 with the exception of Fed Cup.  Fortunately for the stars and stripes, three moderately familiar ATP names seem poised to shine in their home nation.  Recently reaching two grass-court finals (Queens Club, Newport), Mardy Fish might ride his crackling serve to a key upset somewhere, just as he did against Murray in Miami this spring.  Yet the towering duo of Querrey and Isner may shoulder the principal burdens of American hopes; these rapidly maturing baseliners possess an ideal game for these fast hard courts and might well record a stirring performance or two.

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3)  How much will we miss Del Potro, Serena, and Henin?

Vanquishing Nadal, Roddick, and nearly Murray in Montreal, the lanky Argentine provided arguably the most compelling storyline of last year’s US Open Series.  His breakthrough not only delighted spectators with electrifying shotmaking but provided a refreshing counterpoint to the Roger-Rafa dichotomy.  In 2010, the task of creating an appetizing alternate narrative will fall instead to players like Soderling and Berdych, whom we expect to acquit themselves creditably in that role.  On the other hand, the injuries to 40% of the WTA’s Big Five severely undermined the women’s events.  We wouldn’t have foretold titles for either Serena or Henin, for Serena generally delivers lackadaisical, unpersausive tennis at venues like Cincinnati, and Henin’s comeback has faltered since its sensational beginning in Australia.  But the WTA Premier draws will look perceptibly depleted without those marquee names, whose mere presence infuses a stadium with intrigue regardless of their current form.

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4)  Can the Russian women rise again?

Between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, only one Russian woman (Dementieva) remained in the top 10 from the legions who had populated that uppermost echelon in the WTA hierarchy.  Two-time major champion Kuznetsova has drifted to the fringes of the top 20 after recording a single quarterfinal in 2010, while three-time major finalist Safina could be unseeded for the US Open unless she regains her rhythm in the coming weeks.  A quarterfinalist at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, Petrova has failed to find the necessary consistency to maintain a high ranking, and Dementieva herself has alternated impressive results (a French Open semifinal) with patches of listlessness.  At the All England Club, however, two Russians did perform convincingly.  To almost everyone’s surprise, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters en route to her first career Slam final; to almost nobody’s surprise, Sharapova built upon her scintillating French Open form to reach a fiercely contested second-week collision with Serena.  Do those two efforts signal a Russian resurgence, or has this nation’s tide of dominance definitively receded, leaving occasional achievements like driftwood on the shore rather than cresting into a mighty tsunami?

5)  Which (if any) WTA youngster / unknown will score the greatest impact?                    

Among the most intriguing and least predictable plotlines at Wimbledon was the emergence of Petra Kvitova and Tsvetana Pironkova as stern competitors who could test the WTA elite.  Moreover, Kaia Kanepi revived her sagging career with a quarterfinal run that preceded her maiden title in Palermo last week.  When the tour shifts from red and green to blue, we’ll follow these three figures in addition to nascent stars including Wickmayer and Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Wozniacki and Azarenka have struggled with injuries and erratic performance over the last few months, meanwhile, the post-Wimbledon hiatus might have reinvigorated the 2009 US Open finalist and 2009 Miami champion.  Yet the WTA’s veteran core looks likely to retain its stranglehold over the key events, where their superior mental fortitude separates them from the youthful upstarts.  Thus far, Generation Next has not demonstrated that it can regularly solve not only established champions like the Williams sisters, Clijsters, and Sharapova but also the tour’s ladies-in-waiting like Jankovic and Dementieva.  Eventually, however, youth must break through…mustn’t it?

5+1)  Are hard courts really faster than grass?

By the middle weekend at Wimbledon, the Centre Court baselines resembled a dusty clay court much more than pristine grass.  Over the past few years, commentators and players alike have remarked upon the slowing speed of the grass together with the accelerating speed of clay to explain the increasing ease with which players transition between these seemingly antithetical surfaces.  By contrast, the North American hard courts often play progressively faster as a tournament approaches its latter stages, aiding powerful servers and ultra-aggressive shotmakers against counterpunchers.  (This characteristic may have influenced Nadal’s struggle in New York as much as his second-half fatigue.)  Once considered a little slower than Wimbledon, therefore, the US Open now possesses an arguable claim to the speediest surface of any major.  Are the courts throughout the US Open Series equally fast?  Is there significant variation in speed among them?  How relevant are results from these preparatory tournaments if the ball travels perceptibly faster at the climactic event?  Cast a thought to those issues as the “greatest roadtrip in sports” unfolds.

***

In a few days, we return with an article on John Isner, which will differ in format from our previous player profiles but will cover most of the same issues.

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Three of the four Slams complete, we’re precisely halfway through the 2010 tennis season, so it’s time to reflect upon the most momentous and meaningful achievements of the first half.  We count down the top five on both the men’s and women’s sides, not all of which went to a final-set tiebreak (although a few did) but all of which were laden with meaning for the second half of 2010 and beyond.

5)  Djokovic d. Isner (Davis Cup, 1st round, 4th rubber):  In the midst of a desultory spring, Djokovic delivered a stirring melodrama in five parts before a fervent Belgrade audience and frenzied family, whose soccer-style vibe clashes with some tournaments but meshes smoothly with Davis Cup.  As the visiting villain, Isner performed more convincingly than anyone could have expected for his debut with Team USA.  Littered with jagged plot twists, the match ebbed and flowed from one determined competitor to the other, infusing this often moribund competition with renewed energy and relevance.

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4)  Tsonga d. Almagro (Australian Open, 4th round):  The men’s tournament in Melbourne was rife with spectacular first-week epics such as Youzhny-Gasquet, Blake-Del Potro, Del Potro-Cilic, and Roddick-Gonzalez.  But this marathon five-setter climbed above the rest as a result of its steadily escalating intensity, for each brilliant shotmaker forced the other further into the realm of implausibility during its final stages.  Generally more focused upon the journey than the destination, both Tsonga and Almagro shine most brightly in such moments, while their cordial post-match greeting shone just as brightly for those who appreciate classiness on court.

3)  Nadal d. Gulbis (Rome, Semifinal):  Diabolical on dirt once again, Rafa conceded just two sets throughout the entire clay season, one to Almagro in Madrid and one here to the burgeoning Latvian.  Pushing the Spaniard closer to the brink on his favorite surface than anyone else, Gulbis validated his upset over Federer a few days before by harnessing his spectacular all-court prowess with a vastly enhanced competitive vigor.  Few tennis sights are more inspiring than the Latvian at his best, but one of them is the spectacle of the Spaniard relentlessly willing himself to victory over such a worthy opponent.  When his foe’s determined campaign finally crumbled, Nadal’s trademark victory writhe emanated relief as much as pure jubilation.  Finally integrating the components of his spectacular game, Gulbis seems headed directly for the top 10 when he returns from current injuries.  Look for a player profile on him in the coming weeks.

2)  Berdych d. Federer (Miami, 4th round):  Edging into the nerve-jangling terrain of a third-set tiebreak, the famously fragile Czech proved himself fragile no more by saving match point against the world #1 with a fearless forehand.  Two courageous rallies later, Berdych scored the most significant win of his career, even more impressive than his 2004 Olympics triumph over Federer because of the respective trajectories that their careers have followed over the last six years.  He deserves immense credit for continuing to build upon this career-altering moment over the next two majors, where he emerged among the leading threats to the ATP top four.  After lightning struck twice at Wimbledon, the tennis world hailed the Czech’s emergence as a potential champion.  Yet it was a humid April evening in Miami that had witnessed the rebirth of Tomas Berdych.

1)  Isner d. Mahut (Wimbledon, 1st round):  Shattering shoals of records beyond repair, the 138-game final set alone would place this match atop our list.  Moreover, the pas de deux between the American and the Frenchman brought tennis to the attention of sports fans who previously had thought of golf when hearing about the “US Open.”  Just as the previous two matches represented the makings of Gulbis and Berdych, this three-day grind in the grass probably represented the making of John Isner, who stood every inch as tall as his towering frame.  On a broader level, though, the inhumane dimension of the match may have struck a fatal blow to no-tiebreak final sets, a potentially historic step in the evolution of the sport. 

On to the achievements of the ladies:

5)  Schiavone d. Stosur (French Open, Final):  Over the past few years, the Roland Garros women’s final had featured the most appallingly feckless tennis of the WTA season.  Not on this occasion, when Schiavone fearlessly but intelligently took risks at crucial moments and played with joy as well as intensity; meanwhile, Stosur competed consistently throughout most of this tightly contested encounter.  Although the Italian veteran won’t build upon this achievement, her title provided a well-deserved climax to a career lived far from the limelight.  It was delightful to see a women’s final that was won by the champion rather than lost by the runner-up.

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T-4)  Serena d. Sharapova (Wimbledon, 4th round) / Henin d. Sharapova (French Open, 3rd round):  Confronting the best player on clay at Roland Garros and arguably the best player on grass at Wimbledon, Sharapova compelled both adversaries to display their most dazzling tennis in order to vanquish her.  Against the Russian’s indomitable competitive ferocity, Henin’s tenacious defense glowed as much as Serena’s explosive serving and shotmaking.  Dispelling Sharapova’s uncertain start to 2010, these two matches also underscored her return to familiar fire-breathing form, which should enliven the WTA immensely during the second half. 

T-3)  Stosur d. Serena (French Open, Quarterfinal) / Jankovic d. Serena (Rome, Semifinal):  Almost invincible anywhere but clay, Serena is formidable even on her least favorite surface, as the Australian and the Serb could attest.  Stosur consolidated her presence among the sport’s elite by saving a match point before eliminating the world #1 from a major, following the sort of suspenseful, mentally draining duel in which Serena typically prevails.  Likewise saving a match point in Rome, Jankovic encouraged counterpunchers everywhere by proving that top-drawer defense can frustrate top-level offense, contrary to popular wisdom.  David does slay Goliath sometimes, after all.

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T-2)  Clijsters d. Henin (Brisbane, Final) / Clijsters d. Henin (Miami, Semifinal):  The European version of Serena-Venus, the two Belgians rattle each other more than anyone else can rattle either of them.  Not the most technically sturdy or mentally steady tennis, these tension-soaked strolls along the precipice produced more compelling drama than most WTA rivalries.  As soon as Kim built an immense lead, Justine charged forward to snatch it away, only to trip over herself and hand the initiative back to her compatriot…who politely returned it to her.  Towards the latter stages of these matches, whiplash-inducing momentum shifts occurred every few points until momentum itself became a meaningless concept.  In an especially eerie instance of déjà vu, Clijsters won both matches at exactly the same moment (the 14th point of the third-set tiebreak) with exactly the same shot (a forehand winner down the line).

1)   Serena d. Henin (Australian Open, Final):  A three-set women’s final at a major had become an oxymoron after 13 consecutive straight-setters, so one relished a championship match with more than a single, unbroken storyline.  Of course, one of the principal reasons for that trend was Serena’s dominance, which faltered just enough in the second set to allow Henin an opportunity that she seized with consummate aplomb.  As the Belgian reeled off one blinding winner after another, we wondered how the American could recover, but she demonstrated the same tenacity that Nadal manifested against Gulbis.  Serena dug in her heels with admirable stubbornness, transcending her aching knees to play every point and every shot with the single-minded determination that comprises her greatest weapon.  Of her thirteen major titles, few have been harder earned or more meaningful.

***

After applauding the stars who shone in the first half, it’s time to briefly turn from the sublime to the ridiculous.  Sharpening our satirical pen, we sum up the worst matches of 2010.

5)  Roddick d. Soderling (Indian Wells, Semifinal) / Berdych d. Soderling (Miami, Semifinal):  The pre-2008 version of Soderling isn’t dead but dormant, as he proved twice in two tournaments.

4)  Federer d. Murray (Australian Open, Final):  The Scot didn’t start playing with conviction until the third-set tiebreak, much too late to matter.

3)  Nadal d. Verdasco (Monte Carlo, Final):  Surely this hapless hunk of cannon fodder wasn’t the same player who courageously extended Nadal deep into a fifth set at the Australian Open?

2)  Tsonga d. Djokovic (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  We empathized when Djokovic excused himself to vomit midway through this debacle.  No, not “sympathize”; “empathize.”

1)  Ginepri d. Querrey (Roland Garros, 1st round):  Whatever the sins of those who lost the previous four matches, at least they didn’t tank and then casually tell the world about it afterwards.

We’re not so chivalrous that we spare the ladies:

5)  Li d. Venus (Australian Open, Quarterfinal):  Seemingly addled by the Australian sun, these two superb shotmakers left their GPS in the locker room and cheerfully engaged in a carnival of errors.

T-4)  Kirilenko d. Sharapova (Australian Open, 1st round) / Dulko d. Ivanovic (Australian Open, 2nd round):  Never have prettier women played uglier tennis.

3)  Stosur d. Jankovic (French Open, Semifinal):  This listless encounter was far less compelling than the other semifinal…which ended in a retirement after a single set.

2)  Dementieva d. Serena (Sydney, Final):  The five-time Australian Open champion had already moved on to Melbourne, but next time she might want to hire a more skilled impersonator.

1)  Clijsters d. Venus (Miami, Final):  Some of the spectators spent the match sleeping or sunbathing, both more profitable activities than watching what passed for “tennis.”

***

We’ll return in two days with a tie-by-tie preview of the Davis Cup quarterfinals!

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Standing head and shoulders above their respective challengers (figuratively in Nadal’s case), the two #1s asserted their authority with emphatic victories in Wimbledon’s final weekend.  As the victors bask in the glow of their well-deserved triumphs, we present report cards for the principal contenders as well as those who surprised us, for better or for worse.  Brace yourselves for a lengthy but hopefully entertaining read.

A:

Nadal:  For the third consecutive year, the men’s tour witnessed a Channel Slam as the same player swept Roland Garros and Wimbledon, but this feat may become commonplace considering Nadal’s dominance at both venues.  Especially important to his legacy are his non-clay majors, which cement his reputation as a magnificent all-surface player and eventually will incorporate him in the GOAT debate if he remains healthy.  Also significant were his straight-sets triumphs over ball-bruising behemoths in the last two Slam finals, for the style of Soderling and Berdych will characterize most of the opponents whom he must vanquish in the later rounds of majors.  Finally, we saw Nadal outside the stifling context of his evaporating rivalry with Federer, the narrative of which often cast him as the foil to the Swiss legend’s majesty, an upstart who courageously sought to dethrone the king.  Now Rafa reigns supreme, fortified in the #1 ranking for the foreseeable future and ideally positioned to pursue the elusive career Slam at the US Open. 

Serena:  “Dependable” and “steady” might not be the first words that spring to mind when describing the flamboyant Serena, yet they accurately evoke the order and continuity that she has brought to the mercurial WTA.  While Belgians bomb, Russians reel, and a sister sinks, the world #1 fires ace after ace, makes top-50 players look like practice partners, and wins virtually at will.  During her seven victories here, she lost her serve just three times and faced ten total break points (none in the final); only once, against Sharapova, was the American in any real danger of losing so much as a set.  Having won five of the last six non-clay majors, Serena will enter the US Open as the clear favorite to record a 14th major.  We’ll be curious to see whether she ends her career with more Slams than Federer.

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Berdych:  Proving that Miami was no accident, the enigmatic Czech appears to have solved his own riddle and finally assembled his mighty game, which for so long was less than the sum of its parts.  At the core of his last two Slam performances was his vastly improved confidence, which carried him past the six-time champion in a quarterfinal that offered multiple opportunities to falter.  In future majors, he’ll want to take care of business more efficiently in the first week, during which he played a five-setter against Istomin and a four-setter against Brands.  But his achievements in the most pressure-laden environment of all demonstrated that he’s ready to breathe the rarefied air at the top of the game.  With few points to defend on the American hard courts, his ranking should keep rising.

Zvonareva:  She didn’t hold the Venus Rosewater Dish on Saturday, but in a personal sense Zvonareva achieved even more than did Serena during this fortnight.  Whereas we’ve accustomed ourselves to the younger Williams sister delivering such performances, the rebirth of this volatile Russian as a mature competitor should have elated the WTA.  Armed with a complete arsenal of weapons and an excellent tennis IQ, Zvonareva should build upon this tournament as Berdych built upon his Miami breakthrough.  Even in the final, she competed courageously rather than folding as have so many of Serena’s craven foes, while her two previous matches featured n uncharacteristically sturdy comebacks  by a player formerly most famous for her meltdowns.   It’s a pleasure to see the prettiest pair of eyes in women’s tennis sparkling with joy rather than brimming with tears.

A-:

Murray:  Just as in Australia, the Scot was the best player of the men’s tournament until the semis, conceding one lone set en route to that stage.  During his first five matches, he looked nearly invincible as he defused the explosive offenses of Querrey and Tsonga after dismissing a trio of garden-variety foes.  Murray’s emergence from a prolonged post-Australian Open slump will have boosted his confidence at a timely moment before the shift to American hard courts, where he generally prospers.  And his post-defeat press conference was far more gracious than one would have expected from the often truculent Scot.  Nevertheless, he continues to fall just short at Slams and oddly seemed reluctant to carpe the diem against Rafa as he did so expertly in Melbourne.

Surprise WTA semifinalists:  Nadal wasn’t the only lefty who shone on the lawns of the All England Club, nor was Berdych the only Czech.  En route to a surprisingly respectable loss to Serena, Kvitova overwhelmed both Azarenka and Wozniacki as well as 2008 semifinalist Zheng Jie.  Presaged by a trip to the second week of last year’s US Open, the quirky shotmaker’s triumphs against these three diverse playing styles bodes well for her future as a dark horse in key tournaments.  Told that one player other than Serena would reach the semis without dropping a set, few spectators would have guessed Tsvetana Pironkova.  Despite a counterpunching, movement-based game seemingly antithetical to grass, the Bulgarian radiated calm poise throughout her upsets of Bartoli and Venus.  She doesn’t hit anyone off the court, but she makes those who do win points three times or more in order to oust her.

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Sharapova:  Why is a fourth-round loser in this prestigious category?  We grade on improvement (or “dis-improvement”—see below), and that ghastly first-round debacle in Melbourne has receded into distant memory after Maria’s sterling competitive efforts in the last two majors.  If she hadn’t netted a routine forehand on set point in the tiebreak against Serena, she might well have scored a stunning victory last Monday in what became the de facto final; afterwards, the Russian likely would have navigated to a second Wimbledon title.  Even more of a confidence player than Nadal, she proved a shade tentative on key moments in the Serena encounter but looked sharper at Wimbledon than she has since 2006.  When she translates those fearsome serve-groundstroke combinations to her best surface, the hard courts, Sharapova could prove Serena’s primary challenger again at the US Open.

Isner / Mahut / Mohammed Lahyani:  The longest match ever was far from the greatest match ever, yet its B-level tennis shouldn’t detract from the spectacular resilience of its participants.  Kudos to perhaps the most good-natured umpire of all for withstanding seven stiff hours on his lonely perch.  Greater kudos to Isner for defying exhaustion and finding the willpower to propel his massive frames through 118 games in a single day.  And greatest kudos of all to Mahut, who gallantly held serve to stay alive not once, not twice, not thrice, but 64 times.  Perhaps the French World Cup team should watch the spectacular feat of their compatriot, who offered a splendid lesson in how to lose with grace and glory.

B+:

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Djokovic:  He was excellent at times and solid at others, but he doesn’t quite seem like the second-best player in the world, as the rankings would suggest.  Escaping a potential first-round catastrophe against Miami nemesis Rochus, the Serb seemed to settle into the tournament with each successive match, of which the most impressive was his four-set win over the ever-tenacious Hewitt.  In the quarterfinals, Djokovic suffocated the sprightly challenge of Yen-Hsun Lu with arguably his strongest, steadiest single-match performance of 2010 thus far.  Two days later, his serve unraveled ignominiously against Berdych with a double fault to lose the second-set tiebreak and consecutive doubles to drop serve in the third set.  Still uneasy against confident, big-serving opponents, Djokovic stubbornly stuck to an unintelligent game plan in the semis despite possessing ample alternatives.  Most concerning, though, was his fitness; after two hours, he looked more drained than did Mahut after seven.  

Kanepi:  While reaching the quarterfinals was more than sufficient cause for celebration, consider that Kaia Kanepi accomplished that feat after qualifying and while playing doubles.  The indefatigable Estonian reminded us that a crunching serve and mountains of first-strike power often can compensate for an otherwise one-dimensional style on this surface.  Once in the top 20, Kanepi has played with conviction since defeating Henin in Fed Cup  this spring, and her momentum should extend onto the fast hard courts.

Querrey:  After collecting the Queens Club title, the lanky Californian reached the second week of a major for just the second time, an achievement especially remarkable considering his bizarre French fadeout.  In the third round against the ever-dangerous Malisse, he refused to buckle after squandering opportunities in the fourth and fifth sets, instead calmly continuing to hold serve until the Belgian blinked.  When he wasted an opportunity to build an early lead against Murray, however, the Scot swiftly punished him for his profligacy.

Li:  Capitalizing upon her Birmingham title just as Querrey capitalized upon his Queens Club triumph, Li scored a commanding win over two-time quarterfinalist Radwanska in the final 16.  She managed to keep pace with Serena before unaccountably letting a service game slip away late in the first set, after which she faded swiftly.  But the Chinese star has now reached the quarterfinals or better at three of the last four majors, summoning her best tennis for the grandest stages and finally accumulating the consistency that long has constituted her greatest flaw.

B:

Tsonga:  Despite an injury that endangered his participation here, the acrobatic Frenchman leaped and lunged through an eventful first week to reach the quarters.  Had he closed out the second-set tiebreak against Murray, a semifinal spot almost surely would have awaited.  An embarrassing  (but unfortunately not uncharacteristic) faux pas at 5-5 in that tiebreak cost him dearly, though; positioned to demolish a floating return, Tsonga motionlessly watched it sail past him in the expectation that it would land out.  It didn’t, and Murray took full advantage of the reprieve.

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Soderling:  The Swedish juggernaut still exposes the frailties in Nadal, who looked unduly anxious during much of their quarterfinal.  Yet the Spaniard has distinctly recaptured the edge in this mini-rivalry, while Soderling’s temper returned in an unnecessarily prolonged five-set win over Ferrer.  After he refused to drop serve throughout the entire first week, one expected a bit more confidence in the second week.  Nevertheless, a foot injury clearly undermined him against the eventual champion, so look for him to wield an impact again at the US Open.

Melzer:  Winning just eight games from a clearly less-than-flawless Federer in the round of 16:  C+.  Seizing the doubles title with Petzschner:  A-.  Those divergent performances average to a B for this maddeningly mercurial but fascinatingly distinctive veteran, who now has won consecutive third-round matches at Slams after dropping his previous eleven.

Hewitt:  Following his superlative performance in Halle, many observers (including ourselves) expected him to record an upset over Djokovic last Monday.  Although he proved unable to do so, his previous win over Monfils illustrated the dogged determination that he brings to every point of every match.  While that unflinching intensity alone would justify watching him, his superb court sense and point-construction skills scintillate on a more intellectual level.  Rarely does the Australian beat himself, which is a description that one can’t apply to several higher-ranked players.

Groth:  Like Melzer, she reached the second week for the second consecutive major, pounding last year’s sensation Melanie Oudin into submission en route.  Although her competitive fourth-round encounter with Venus looked less impressive two days later, she showed greater poise than she formerly had on such occasions…until she served for the second set, when her game predictably fell apart.  All the same, the Slovak-turned-Australian is steadily learning how to channel her prodigious power, ominous news for whoever draws her early in New York.

Clijsters:  Losing to a pair of mentally dubious Russians (Petrova, Zvonareva) at her last two Slams, the 2009 US Open champion will be hard-pressed to defend her title unless her level rises distinctly in Cincinnati and Canada.  Sluggish and seemingly disinterested for much of her quarterfinal here, Clijsters looked more like a mom who plays tennis than a tennis player who is a mom.  Yet perhaps she was mentally drained from yet another three-set triumph over Henin on the previous day, a match that reaffirmed her position as currently the Best in Belgium.  Kim won’t need to worry about such a hangover at the next major, where she’ll gain the psychological boost of flying her country’s flag alone.

Haase / Petzschner:  Unknown outside the inner circle of aficionados, these northern European sluggers both won two sets from Nadal.  Those five-set losses represent greater accomplishments than any of their prior victories and should inspire them to future exploits.

Wimbledon crowd:  A thunderous standing ovation for the six-time men’s champion as he trudged off Centre Court in defeat:  A.  Boos for the five-time women’s champion when she arrived ten minutes late on Court 2:  C.  Does that sixth title really garner so much additional respect?  Apparently not, since nobody dared to boo Sharapova when she appeared ten minutes late on the same court (and probably for the same, perfectly justifiable reason).

B-:

Federer:  After nearly finding himself on the wrong side of history in the first round, the defending champion seemed to be playing his way into the tournament when he crashed into Berdych and out of Wimbledon.  That Sampras record of total weeks at #1 may be safe after all unless the Swiss legend suddenly reinvigorates himself as he did in 2008.  Leading us to expect otherwise, however, are these consecutive pre-quarterfinal losses at majors to players whom Federer formerly had dominated, losses that he rationalized a little too glibly in his post-match interview.  His final unforced error of the day, that sour press conference revealed a much less gracious personality than we had identified with the former #1.  Not unlike Serena at her worst, he attributed his loss to everything—from injuries to simple bad luck—except his opponent.  Has Federer perhaps been concealing a churlish streak beneath his genteel veneer?  It’s not hard to look and sound classy when you’re always holding a trophy.

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Henin:  We’ve reached a key crossroads in her comeback, which has garnered two minor titles and the Australian Open final but has fallen well short of most expectations.  During her protracted injury absence, she might want to assess the state of her game and consider what could be changed to take the next step forward.  But a third loss to Clijsters in six months—at the tournament for which this entire project is designed—must have struck a heavy blow to her easily deflated morale.

Azarenka / Wozniacki:  Once described as the future faces of women’s tennis, the Belarussian and the Dane have taken winding detours on their respective routes to what seemed inevitable Slam glory.  Both of them gulped down bagels courtesy of Kvitova, and both remain chronically hampered by injuries that restrict their movement.  Let’s hope that the post-Wimbledon hiatus provides a much-needed physical and mental respite.

Roland Garros women’s finalists:  The toasts of France quickly became French toast at Wimbledon, garnering just one set between them.  While Schiavone doesn’t need to win another match if she doesn’t want, Stosur needs to dispel the lingering aftermath of her Paris disappointment before it festers too long.

C:

Roddick:  For the second straight Wimbledon, he held his serve through five sets until losing it in the final game of the match.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he lost two of three tiebreaks.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he rallied from a two-sets-to-one deficit to force a final set.  For the second straight Wimbledon, he came within a point of serving for the match.  But this time he was playing Yen-Hsun Lu in the fourth round instead of Federer in the final.  A major setback for the top-ranked American, Roddick’s tournament effectively erased his momentum from Indian Wells and Miami while intensifying the pressure that he’ll confront at the US Open.  Just beyond his grasp a year ago, that second Slam now looks as far away as ever.

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Venus:  Accustomed to routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament, the elder Williams is not accustomed to being the victim of routine quarterfinals at her favorite tournament.  Facing break point in all but two of her service games, she never found her range against an energetic but far from overpowering Pironkova, the type of player whom she must conquer in order to contend for majors again.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine her harnessing those unruly groundstrokes throughout an entire fortnight.  In the twilight stages of Venus’ career, her game is hideous when it is anything less than sublime.

Men’s doubles stars:  Seeking to break the Woodies’ titles record, the Bryans let a potentially magical moment slip away in the quarterfinals.  Their perennial nemeses, defending champions Nestor and Zimonjic departed even earlier. 

F:

Blake / Pam Shriver:  Both of them forfeited considerable respect by stooping to engage in a mid-match war of words after Pam’s biting critique of James.  Credit Robin Haase for not allowing the fracas to distract him from the task of pulverizing Blake, whose career has drifted out to sea for good. 

Hanescu:  Keep your saliva to yourself.  Nobody wants to be infected with the type of malady that engenders such disrespect for the sport.  Or did you confuse Wimbledon with the World Cup, where such antics might be applauded?

***

Although most of the top players now embark upon quasi-summer vacations, we will not vanish into the London mist.  Here are some of the articles that you can expect to read here in the next few weeks:

Five to Frame:  The Five Most Memorable Matches of the First Half (ATP edition and WTA edition)

Rivalries Renewed:  Davis Cup Quarterfinal Preview

5 (+1) Plotlines to Ponder:  US Open Series Edition

Pushing Forward:  Caroline Wozniacki (player profile)

To Have and Have Not:  Ernests Gulbis (player profile)  [Sorry for the delay on this article, a pre-Roland Garros request.  We didn’t forget, though!]

Service with a Smile:  John Isner (player profile)